Habibah Johnson breathed a sigh of relief on her youngest son’s third birthday this past year — because she no longer needed to worry about child care.
Staffing shortages at day care centers because of the pandemic meant long waitlists or hefty price tags — so Johnson relied on family and friends to watch her children while she was at work last year. Now that her son is 3, she can send him to PreK-3, a free state-run program.
But a lack of child care is not the only crisis largely facing women of late. Over the last six months, caretakers, mothers and people who menstruate have also faced infant formula recalls and now tampon shortages.
Experts, nonprofit organizers and mothers have said that women’s needs are often overlooked by governments, and that inequity feels especially acute as women return to the workforce.
Day cares are charging $1,200 to $1,400 per month for a single child. Mothers are paying $50 to $60 for a can of formula. People who menstruate and can’t find tampons might use paper towels and napkins to absorb their periods.
“A lot of this also has to deal with that a lot of our lawmakers don’t have a period, will never have a period, haven’t had a period and so even though this tampon shortage has been happening for quite a while, it’s just not top of mind for so many lawmakers yet,” said Dana Marlowe, the president of I Support the Girls, an organization that allocates bras and menstrual products to people who need them.
The New Jersey Legislature has introduced bills to address the child care crisis and period poverty, but without swift action, experts said that many women may not be able to return to the workforce.
Child care shortage
Johnson, a working mother of four, said most of the day care centers near her had long waiting lists, or were too expensive to enroll her son in the programs, with the average center charging $1,200 to $1,400 per month. She said the solution to the child care crisis is making day care for children ages 0 to 3 free for every family.
The constant change-up of teachers at day care programs has affected her children because there is too much turnover. She said children can also suffer from not attending day care because they are not learning and socializing.
“There’s this revolving door of teachers that come and go, which impacts them because they’re having to say goodbye to teachers that they have been with, so it can be sort of an unstable environment for children because of these constant changes,” Johnson said.
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Before the pandemic, Winifred Smith-Jenkins’ two child care centers were fully staffed and served about 200 children 5 years old and younger. Now 13 of her classrooms are empty and she is turning away families because she does not have enough employees to staff the centers.
“I definitely believe that this is a direct effect of the pandemic, but child care has been teetering on the verge of collapse for so long,” said Smith-Jenkins, senior director of Zadie’s Nurturing Den of the Oranges and Summit. “The pandemic did not push us over the edge as much as it just highlighted all of the problems that we’ve been struggling with for decades.”
Women typically bear the brunt of child care responsibilities, with many sacrificing their careers. Nearly 10% of New Jersey women who are unemployed said they were not working because they were caring for children, compared to just 2.3% of men, according to a report released in April by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work.
Since the onset of the pandemic, 92 child care centers in New Jersey have closed, according to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
The best solution for moving forward is having the government fund child care as a public good, like public schools, said Cynthia Rice, a senior analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey. With rising tuition costs to pay the teachers, fewer children are able to attend child care, which means that fewer mothers can return to the workforce.
Businesses should also look into how they can best support their employees, especially women, through providing assistance for child care and more flexibility in working hours for parents, she said.
“The takeaway in all this is no matter how much money has already been spent in the child care system since the beginning of the pandemic, that problems are not solved,” Rice said. “And I think it’s important to mention that the child care system really is the workforce behind the workforce, and we need to find ways to solve these problems, and that includes stronger state investment.”
Infant formula crisis
Since the birth of her son three months ago, Francesca Mitchell has not known where her son’s next can of infant formula will come from.
The shortage continues to impact families across the country after Abbott Nutrition recalled several of its formula brands in February and shut down the formula plant in Michigan. Mitchell’s son was born with a cow’s milk protein allergy, meaning that finding formula for him is even more difficult because he has reactions to most of the mainstream brands.
“It’s just been really crazy and then to top it off with the formula shortage, he has not found a formula that works for him,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said she uses Facebook groups to find what pharmacies and retailers have specialty formulas in stock, but some sellers on Facebook have taken advantage of her. She said scammers photoshopped images of formula cans into a post, and when she sent the money to purchase them, the user blocked her and did not ship her any formula.
She said each can of formula lasts her son about two days, and retails anywhere between $26 to $60 each. Insurance does not cover it.
“I have enough for two weeks and then I don’t know what to do from there because number one I can’t afford the formula, it’s ranging from $50 to $60 a can right now,” Mitchell said. ” And number two, I don’t even know what’s going to happen with him, how he’s going to react to it so either way, you’re in a Catch 22.”
The Michigan formula plant reopened about two weeks ago, but has shut down again because of flooding from storms — and that will likely exacerbate the shortage.
Stores across the state and country were setting limits on how many formula containers someone could buy as shelves remained close to empty. Parents created Facebook groups and other online forums to share what stores have formula in stock.
Lisa Pitz, the assistant director of Hunger Free NJ, said mothers have reached out to food banks to see if they have formula, and that mothers of children with special dietary needs are having even more trouble finding the formula they need.
“Low-income families are disproportionately impacted by the formula shortage though, and WIC has taken some steps to improve access to formula as much as possible,” Pitz said in an email, referring to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Women and people who menstruate are faced with another supply chain crisis: Tampon shortages caused by supply chain issues and staffing shortages. Nonprofit organizations who collect menstrual product donations said these shortages will strongly impact low-income people who were already struggling to find and afford tampons.
Marlowe, the president of I Support the Girls, said she first heard in January that there was likely going to be a shortage of tampons. The number of tampons the organization has been able to distribute dropped dramatically in 2022: 218,000 tampons compared to nearly 450,000 at this time in 2021.
She said many women who can’t afford to order menstrual products online or to use reusable options, like menstrual cups and period underwear, may resort to unsanitary options, like torn-up sheets or toilet paper. This may prevent them from going to work or school, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts.
“When folks are marginalized or homeless, so much of choice is stripped away, whether it’s the choice of how and when you know what you want to eat for dinner, or you know what clothing you want to wear because you might be at the whim of whatever is donated and people give you on a given day,” Marlowe said. “So one of the things that all of us at I Support the Girls like to do is provide that choice in how you manage your menstrual health.”
The New Jersey Senate introduced legislation to reimburse school districts for suppling menstrual products in some public schools. The legislation was referred back to the senate budget and appropriations committee earlier this month.
Elise Joy, the co-founder of Girls Helping Girls Period, said her organization and others similar to it are having trouble keeping tampons stocked while they rarely had issues before. She said many consumers have resorted to “panic buying,” which is worsening the shortage because many people are hoarding tampons.
She said the shortage has brought the issues of period poverty to the forefront and she hopes that the state Legislature can pass the bills to make menstrual products free in schools and more accessible to people with periods. The tampon shortage has forced people to realize how low-income families feel when they cannot get the products they need.
“The silver lining to this is that more people will be educated on period poverty and about the need for us to find ways to support people in our society,” Joy said. “And one of the simplest things we can do is by making menstrual products free to students and schools.”