It has been a little over two years since COVID changed the world. It has been an emotional roller coaster for all, especially the child care workforce.
Before the pandemic, the child care sector was like a rickety old rollercoaster, functioning but in constant need of tweaks in the form of financial assistance from government entities. Child care received a few dollars here and there, but never sufficient, meaningful investments from state and federal governments. Now, after decades of underfunding, child care is expensive, teachers make poverty wages, and parents can’t afford the care they need. The child care industry has become a bumpy ride for all. Parents, providers, policymakers, and advocates are all asking the same question: how do we get child care back on track?
The true cost of care
Providing child care is difficult and expensive work. According to the Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force child care business can spend between 60-80% of earnings on labor alone, and these percentages often do not include benefits. With the additional costs of rent, insurance, food, and specialized care, provider’s margins drastically shrink. These high overhead costs leave child care employers unable to pay teachers a living wage. Today the child care sector remains one of the lowest paid in the country even when teachers hold college degrees. A 2016 index from the Center for Study of Child Care Employment estimated that 40% percent of Washington’s early educators relied on public aid and earned a poverty-level wage. Furthermore, 50% of those working in Washington’s early learning sector are people of color, and 30% are bilingual.
The child care sector’s current challenge is understaffing, as providers struggle to retain and recruit new teachers. Added emotional, economic, and workplace stress from the pandemic drove many teachers to leave the field for higher-paying jobs with benefits. As a result, the child care industry is struggling to remain competitive within the job market. Unlike other industries, child care providers cannot raise tuition to increase compensation because higher costs for families lowers enrollment, leaving providers with a difficult choice between remaining understaffed or struggling to make ends meet. According to a recent newsletter by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment nationally, the sector has lost over 88,300 jobs since February 2020.
The reality is that child care in the United States is grossly expensive for parents. A low-wage, two-parent family with a child in preschool can pay equal up to 35% of their income. The unaffordability of care forces parents to make difficult decisions about where to place their children, often opting for the more affordable option, which can be an unlicensed facility.
No matter how high the demand for child care, financial assistance from state and federal governments has only come in bits and pieces. The investments are never enough to address this sector’s underlying challenges, despite child care being critical to families and a functioning economy.
Early learning and the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID wreaked havoc on the job market. As industries ground to a halt and millions faced unemployment, many workers were forced to withdraw their children from care. Child care providers became the essential workers for other essential workers. Yet, they got little guidance and compensation for their tireless work. Teachers already making low wages did not have enough paid leave to care for themselves and their loved ones when COVID struck them personally. With the country leaning on child care workers to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry finally began to get attention from Congress.
In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed two major pieces of legislation that helped keep child care afloat with emergency and short-term assistance. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (The CARES Act) and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The CARES Act provided cash assistance for families, a paycheck protection program for small businesses, and emergency funds to states from which families could access paid leave. ARPA granted states funds for economic recovery, creating some level of stability for many industries. Still, workers and providers in the child care sector continued to hang on by a thread.
Investments in child care can’t wait
In the fall of 2021, President Joe Biden announced the Build Back Better plan. This plan could have saved the early learning industry by increasing the number of child care slots, compensation for teachers, and addressing affordability for all families, with provision ensuring middle-class families pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care. The Build Back Better reconciliation package generated hope and excitement for providers, teachers, advocates, and parents. It would have helped states expand high-quality, affordable child care access to about 20 million children per year – covering nine out of ten families across the country with young children. Despite its popularity among voters, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) refused to support the social spending package, dashing the hopes of child care workers and effectively killing the bill.
In 2022 Congress attempted again, to address child care costs and shortages through the Child Care and Early Learning Reconciliation proposal by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA ) and Tim Kane (D-VA). Once again creating enthusiasm and hope. The package promised to reach a million children, lower costs and expand access for families while increasing supply and child care teachers’ wages. But after over a year of discussion and negotiation, child care funding was cut entirely from the reconciliation package, abandoning those dependent on child care. Disappointment set it again for all those with high hopes for child care improvements.
Congress’s inaction isn’t working. We can’t get child care back on track without meaningful, large-scale investments to increase the availability and affordability of child care and provide compensation enhancements for the child care workforce. It is time policymakers show they value this vital industry and commit to making the investments needed to save this important foundation of our economy. Investments in child care can’t wait.
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