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Texas Restaurant Workers Are Eligible for Free Child Care

It’s a state policy the whole country should adopt

Masked children coloring at a table with an adult Getty Images

In a somewhat shocking move, it seems like the state of Texas has come up with a plan to meaningfully support parents working in the service industry: providing free child care for up to a year for those who qualify.

The state’s Service Industry Recovery Child Care program launched in October of last year and promises a stipend that is paid directly to a child care provider of the parent’s choice, so long as that provider is licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The program also requires that single parents work at least 25 hours per week — 50 hours per week for a two-parent home — and that the family receiving the benefits earns an income that is at or below 75 percent of the state’s median income. Workers must also be employed in the service industry, which includes grocery stores and full-service restaurants and bars, among other workplaces.

More than 11,000 Texas children are receiving care paid for by the Service Industry Recovery Child Care program despite minimal publicity on the program’s 2021 launch, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, and it could prove a huge boon for restaurant employees. There are nonprofits tackling the issue of child care access in the hospitality industry, but a task this important — and massive — shouldn’t be left to those organizations.

The industry is notoriously hostile for parents, lacking much in the way of paid parental leave or time off to take care of a sick child, much less the child care stipends that are becoming increasingly common at major companies like Best Buy. It can also be challenging for hospitality workers to find child care providers who are open during the dinner rush and late-night bar shifts, though in Texas, the state operates a list of licensed providers who offer after-hours care.

The program arrived at a time when child care is becoming exponentially more expensive for parents. One estimate suggests that the cost of “high-quality” child care has risen 41 percent over the course of the pandemic, with millions of Americans paying an average of $14,000, or as much as 20 percent of their salaries, in child care costs each year. That feels especially untenable in the midst of continuing inflation, as the costs of everything from food to gas to housing also continue to rise.

And truly, a program like this is the least a state like Texas can do. Gov. Greg Abbott and the legislature have almost universally failed their citizens during the pandemic, from lifting mask mandates and reopening businesses against the advice of medical experts, to kicking people off unemployment when they didn’t want to go back to work in environments that could jeopardize their health.

It shouldn’t have taken a circumstance as devastating as the pandemic to recognize the need for subsidized child care, but amid staffing shortages that persist across the country, it just makes good business sense for governments to step in and support workers in this way. It’s the exact kind of program that the federal government should implement broadly for all parents and not just service industry workers. According to the Brookings Institute, a federal child care subsidy for all American families would cost about $42 billion, a tiny fraction of the government’s $6.8 trillion operating budget.

We can look to the success of the Advance Child Tax Credit (CTC) payments that went out to families in 2021 for proof that programs that ease the financial burden of raising children have impacts that are far-reaching. In addition to reducing the number of children living in poverty in the short-term, a worthy goal in and of itself, the policy is expected to have a long-term impact on the social mobility of marginalized families. In short, directing more money to families has a positive impact on children for literally their entire lives.

It feels exceptionally rare that Texas comes up with a social policy idea that could actually improve people’s lives in a meaningful way — generally, the state’s legislature is too busy worrying about denying people access to essential healthcare services or hassling trans kids — but the Service Industry Recovery Child Care program is the rare golden needle in the middle of a haystack that’s actually made out of garbage.

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