A collage of three images of phones. There are illustrations of a mother reaching out to her child in one, a parent walking a child in a stroller in another, and someone holding a child in the third.

The Child Care Crisis

Can An App Solve the Child Care Crisis?

The founders of Helpr want to make safe and affordable child care not just easy to find, but a legal right for all.

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You birth ’em, you care for ’em has been the unspoken rule for women and child care for centuries. This attitude and a lack of accessible child care have long forced caregivers into a tough dilemma: stay home with children and forego (or pause) a career and contributing financially to their households, or spend a significant chunk of income paying for the steep costs of child care. In California, the average cost of care can range from about $956 to more than $1,500 per month, which is approximately 24.9 percent of the average family’s median income, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Even in a state with a lower cost of living, like Michigan, these costs run from $705 to more than $900 per month.

The families hit hardest by barriers to child care are low- and middle-income families, people of color, and parents of infants and toddlers, according to the 2016 Early Childhood Program Participation Survey. This has economic repercussions to the tune of $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue—and even larger social implications. Lack of child care drives women out of the workforce; one study saw a decrease in employment of women with children under five by as much as 13 percent. This means less access to wealth for women, who comprise the majority of the population, which has a profound impact on the economy.

These are just a few of the reasons that two good friends co-founded Helpr, a child care app that offers vetted child care providers as needed, helps parents access any government or employer-based child care subsidies to which they may be entitled, and supports businesses in managing these subsidies, as well. Helpr’s founders Kasey Edwards and Becka Klauber Richter were inspired to create their business after working in child care in a variety of ways in college, including co-fostering two young girls through a unique program known as Safe Families for Children.

Though neither had children when they founded their company four years ago (though Richter is now pregnant), they both witnessed firsthand the complexity of the families they worked for trying to find affordable, accessible child care. They both believe that child care needs to be everyone’s issue, not just something for mothers to figure out. “The way Millennial thinking is going, it’s about being more egalitarian [in parenting],” Edwards says.

Helpr aims to fill some of the gaps that make accessing child care difficult, not just for women, but for all parents who need it, particularly those for whom missing just one extra day of work could mean losing their job. However, they are more than just another caregiving app. They are also working directly with businesses to make sure that workers and employers both are utilizing and managing the benefits that already exist. While Helpr is a convenient tool for any parent who needs child care at a moment’s notice, where its founders are really focusing their efforts is at the business level, selling to the HR departments of companies that already offer some subsidized child care, and courting companies that don’t yet.

The founders have a vision for a day when child care is covered as a benefit just like healthcare, by all employers or the government. Right now, however, the numbers are bleak. Edwards says only a small number of companies currently offer a child care subsidy and that’s commonly only in bigger corporations. According to a 2018 survey of its members, the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 4 percent of employers offer access to backup child care at all. It’s such a problem, a recent group of mothers working for Amazon, who called themselves “Momazonians” put pressure on Jeff Bezos to offer back up child care, citing lack of this benefit as having a detrimental impact on women’s ability to thrive and advance in their jobs.

While there are a variety of different government programs that offer child care benefits, depending on a variety of criteria and locations, not everyone knows how to access those benefits, or can find good child care to take advantage of the subsidies. The most common programs are:

  • State-funded vouchers or fee assistance programs. These programs are offered to qualifying families so that a caregiver can work or attend school.
  • Early Start/Head Start programs. These programs, designed to support children’s development, are typically offered for children ages newborn to 2, and 3 to 5, and primarily aimed at low-income families. Special considerations may be given to children with disabilities, children in foster care, families experiencing homelessness and those receiving public assistance of other kinds.
  • State funded Pre-K. These programs are for children ages 3 to 5, designed to offer school readiness.
  • Military and Department of Defense child care subsidies: Eligibility is up to each individual branch of service or agency.

“We’re trying to work within the framework of what’s currently in place for child care but envisioning a space where a combination of employers and the government are contributing more to family care costs,” says Richter. “Right now we’re depending on the altruism of companies. We need a change in policy.”

Helpr has been especially vocal in educating legislators about backup child care policies. Edwards traveled to Sacramento recently to advance a proposed bill that would mandate California employers of a certain employee size subsidize a set number of backup child care hours each year. They believe activism is important in the space generally—and that since progressive workplace policies won’t always come about via corporate altruism, there will need to be broader corporate mandates at a legislative level.

A significant amount of research shows that policies aimed at lifting the burden of paying for child care encourage mothers’ ability to participate in the labor force. Additionally, policies that reduce the costs and improve access to early childhood education programs enable mothers to participate more regularly and for longer duration in the workforce.

Access to reliable “child care and transportation are huge social determinants of health,” Richter says. “It’s not just people trying to get ahead in the workplace, but those just trying to stay employed.”

Some of the current Democratic presidential candidates, notably Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar, are advocating for universal child care that would cover children from birth to age 5, the years before most children start school. However, policy changes are still a ways off, even if a Democrat wins the 2020 Presidential election.

“At Helpr we are helping families refinance and pay for child care,” Edwards says. While she says this won’t solve the child care crisis, “What we can do is help people with backup child care to make sure they’re able to keep their jobs and [help in] these most stressful times of work/life balance.”

Through Helpr, employees can access any employer-based subsidies and pay the remaining amount as a co-pay. And, if a parent already has a care provider they work with, even those who often do child care as an unpaid favor, they can upload their provider to the system and use their employer benefits to pay that provider. Additionally, for families that can qualify for the IRS’s pre-tax child and dependent care benefit, in which qualifying parents can write off up to $5,000 in child and child care expenses, the app helps to track those hours.

Help may even potentially partner with government programs that don’t currently have app-based ease for their programs, such as California’s Calworks’ Parents’ Choice Program, which allows parents to receive a subsidy to pay any care provider of their choice, be it a friend, a relative, or a daycare center.

Additionally, parents who qualify for other dependent care assistance programs (d-cap FSAs) through the government, parents can use Helpr to access those benefits throughout the year, so they don’t expire.

Richter is heartened by efforts within companies to expand their support for parents, from maternity mentorship programs, to parent groups, to wellness programs that support “presenteeism” in the workplace, though she and Edwards both feel that the country has a long way to go toward truly filling child care gaps.

“Translating love and compassion into policy is going to be so important for this country moving forward,” Richter says. “Family benefits are where we need to move.”

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