Care takes many forms. Parents can showcase the most public displays of care, from helping babies take their first steps to encouraging their kids to succeed in school. But young people also perform unseen care work when looking after older relatives or younger siblings. College students create formal and informal networks of care to cope with the pressures of university life and look out for one another. Regardless of what it looks like, care is an important source of joy and a valuable form of human connection.

But for many families, this capacity to care is under attack. Parents are finding it increasingly difficult to dedicate time to care work and accessing support. In part, this is due to a growing number of two–parent income households, requiring parents to manage child care responsibilities on top of two full–time jobs. The “crisis of care” forces parents to look for expensive child care options or make personal sacrifices in their careers in order to care for their children.

At Penn, many faculty and staff struggle to balance their responsibilities as both employees and caregivers, while facing a serious lack of institutional support. In “The Care Crisis at Penn,” a recent report from the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS), researchers highlighted the experiences of a wide range of caregivers—from facilities workers to tenured faculty—during the COVID–19 pandemic. Their findings indicated that a majority of employees were frustrated by the University’s lack of clear communication of institutional policies regarding child care support. Policies like the Backup Care program and COVID–19 Childcare Grant, for instance, were limited to only one use, with the latter policy being removed this academic year. There was also widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of specialized support for different types of care work, as the needs of infant caregivers are different from those caring for elementary–aged children. 

Gwendolyn Beetham, associate director of GSWS and contributor to the report, says that the pandemic has brought increased awareness to the difficulties of finding child care options. She explains that during the height of the pandemic, working at child care centers became “high–risk work all of a sudden … because you're exposed to children who can't be vaccinated.” As a result, many child care centers in Philadelphia temporarily or permanently closed, which created additional obstacles for parents who already had difficulty finding affordable child care. 

While all caregivers are affected by the lack of child care options, there is no single story that can define the care crisis. Beetham emphasizes that certain employees at Penn experience the care crisis more acutely than others. “If you're working for facilities and still have to come into the University when many people can work from home, that's obviously going to affect you," she says, "and you're not going to have the same [access to] resources that a tenured faculty person does." In fact, she points out that at Penn, there are different child care policies depending on one’s employment category, with more limited support for part–time staff and lecturers. But in order to address the needs of all caregivers, “parental leave [and flexible work] options [must] be equal across employment categories,” Beetham says. 

To address this care crisis, the GSWS report recommends that Penn create institutional policies to develop better care infrastructure, including a “clear articulation of health and safety guidelines as they pertain to those with children under 12,” and increased support for campus–provided child care. Penn already funds four child care centers near campus, but these often remain inaccessible for parents and families. The Penn Children’s Center has a long waitlist for all age groups and even at its most affordable rate for staff members with family incomes under $63,000, the center costs more than $10,000 a year for full–time infant care.  

This shortage of child care options is not just an issue for Penn employees, but remains a persistent challenge in the larger Philadelphia community. In the city, the median cost for full–time infant daycare is $10,000 a year for full–time infant daycare, with high–quality care costing up to $25,000 a year. With such high demand, it might seem like child care is a lucrative industry. But even before the pandemic, child care centers had difficulty recruiting employees as the low teacher–to–student ratio kept wages down. Child care centers face a cyclical issue of high employee turnover and high parental demand, forcing parents to seek out limited options with increasingly long waitlists.

Beetham notes that this contradiction between the high demand of child care and the low wages of child care workers is connected to the gendered distribution of care work. Despite the rise of two–parent income households, women are still responsible for the overwhelming majority of care work. Beetham says that this “feminization of care” causes the systemic undervaluing of both unwaged and waged child care. 

The structural issues of child care have existed for years, but the lack of child care options has become especially pressing during the COVID–19 pandemic, which brought to light the glaring inaccessibility of the system. For many employees at Penn, it became clear that the University has a responsibility to support their ability to be caregivers. The inequities in care work should be critically examined, while advocating for a future that truly recognizes all forms of care as valuable.