The federal government did, at one point, throw some money at the child-care problem. The CARES Act gave states $3.5 billion for child care. But according to Hamm, that wasn’t even enough to cover child care for a month for health-care workers only. Many states told us that this money has run dry, and they are now awaiting new federal funds that may not come. And Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming told us they have no free child care for parents who can not work from home.
Even in some of the states currently subsidizing child care, workers have to be very poor to qualify for help. And the co-pay, which could be hundreds of dollars a month, might still be too much for some families because many of the companies that were giving frontline workers “hazard pay” earlier in the pandemic have since stopped. For example, in Georgia, child care for essential workers is subsidized, but there are far from enough slots to accommodate all the state’s children, and families making more than $1,214 a year still have to pay a fee for child care. (Some states, such as Mississippi, have either waived those co-pays or created programs to cover them.)
Read: The working-to-afford-child-care conundrum
Because of these hurdles, some parents are likely leaving their kids unattended. (Child advocates call this “self-care,” in a dark twist on the Millennial relaxation trend.) “We spend a lot of time in this country trying to deal with [parents] leaving children in self-care too early,” Smith says. “And I think this is going to be a big backtrack.”
Though there are no strong data on the number of parents leaving their children home alone—likely because parents who are forced to leave their kids unattended are loath to admit it—a fair amount did so even before the pandemic, Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., told us. “There’s literally often no place for them to go,” she said. “So, if you have an 8- or 9-year-old who you would trust, or even if you don’t, I can’t imagine there aren’t parents doing that—and feeling terrible about it at every moment, and being very, very worried.”
Some states told us that they don’t track cases of children left unsupervised. Sadly, one of the only ways to judge the scale of the problem will be to monitor how many children die of abuse or neglect this year. That number is usually about 1,700. But with so many parents stuck without child care, many more might leave children at home all day with little more than a locked door for protection. Young children don’t appear to spread the virus as much as adults do. But their health, and their lives, are still at risk from America’s failure to contain COVID-19.