In response to the escalating child care crisis, one of many pressing social issues exacerbated by the pandemic, the new Biden administration has pledged to offer relief to child care providers struggling to stay open, as well as to help parents struggling to pay for child care. Early childhood advocates cheer the relief package, but also warn that deeper reform may be needed.
The core of Biden’s early childhood relief proposal involves a $40 billion pot of money, including $25 billion earmarked to stabilize the child care industry. The money would go toward helping providers pay for rent, utilities and payroll, as well as increased costs due to the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment and ventilation. Part of a sweeping $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package currently being considered by Congress, the plan also includes $15 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant, a federal program that helps low-income families pay for child care, a push that is considered key in getting women back into the workforce.
These moves can’t come fast enough to help relieve families and child care workers, experts say.
“Biden’s relief plan is desperately needed across the country and certainly in California. It won’t solve all the problems, but it will stabilize the system,” said Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at UC Berkeley. “People have bills to pay, and this is going to help them survive.”
Many champions of early childhood education also hail the acknowledgment of the essential role child care workers play in our society as long overdue.
“The system has been woefully underfunded for decades, leaving it fragile and hanging by a thread, placing the burden of holding the system together on the backs of mostly low-paid women of color,” said Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer of Parent Voices, a parent advocacy group. “If the government believes child care is essential and wants the economy to recover when the pandemic is over, it all leads through the door of a child care program. We must invest now, and invest big, otherwise, all those doors will be closed.”
Other key Biden proposals include paid family leave and child care tax credits, both goals long supported by many early childhood advocates.
“The Biden stimulus proposal is wonderfully comprehensive, from strengthening paid family leave to backstopping fragile pre-K centers,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “What I find most provocative in the Biden plan is to expand and make refundable the federal child care tax credit.”
Child care hangs by a thread
However, by far the most urgent concern facing the field right now is the child care crisis, which has deepened due to the pandemic. Child care providers are facing a 47% spike in operating costs related to COVID-19, according to the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group. Enrollment is also down, further straining an already overburdened industry.
“Child care providers are barely hanging on. Many are being shuttered under the pressure of higher staffing numbers, additional costs to keep their facilities clean and families who find coming back to child care unsavory,” said Makinya Ward, an administrator at Kids Konnect Preschool, which runs child care centers in San Mateo and Alameda counties. “The bad news is that if funding does not reach the child care centers who are most at risk of closing permanently soon, it will be difficult to get American families back to work.”
The number of family child care homes has long been on the decline, decreasing by a third between 2008 and 2019, according to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network. The pandemic added fuel to the fire, with almost 7,000 family child care homes shutting their doors between March and December last year, 2,443 permanently, according to the California Department of Social Services. That’s why accessibility of care has become a critical issue.
“Prior to the pandemic, 6 in 10 Californians lived in a child care desert with limited access to care. California has lost thousands of child care providers during the COVID-19 crisis. If we want to recover from this recession, parents must have access to child care for their kids,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit research organization. “There will not be an economic recovery if we don’t adequately support child care providers now — while they provide vital care for essential workers’ children — and after the pandemic when we can begin to recover from the recession.”
More than 150,000 early childhood jobs have been lost in the last few years, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported. To make matters worse, wages for these jobs are often low, $12.29 per hour for child care workers and $16.19 per hour for preschool teachers in California in 2018, lagging behind other occupations, according to Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. This economic pressure, coupled with the heightened risk of transmission that all essential workers face, has forced many child care workers out of the field, perhaps for good.
“Some educators have decided to make a career change, while others have decided to retire. There are others who just cannot make the math work to remain open. It’s a sad state of affairs,” Ward said. “I am personally checking my email in hopes that relief is literally on the way. Some just won’t be able to wait.”
High price of child care
Another pressure point in the child care system is affordability for families. The average price of center-based infant child care in California is more than the average annual tuition and fees at a public four-year college, according to Child Care Aware,an advocacy organization.
“Costs have shot up but parents are also struggling, so child care providers can’t raise prices,” said Alycia Hardy, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “It’s so expensive because there’s been little government support for the child care system. We need to treat it as the public good that it is.”
Under the Biden plan, families would also get a tax credit that covers up to half of a family’s spending on child care for one year. That amount goes up to $4,000 for one child and up to $8,000 for two or more children. The tax credit would also be made fully refundable instead of only partly refundable, which it is now.
However, advocates also warn that the problems inherent in the child care system go deeper than any single aid package. They are pressing for long-term solutions that involve lasting structural change.
“We know this is only a short-term solution. We must continue to push our local, state and national leaders to address the systemic issues that have led us to this moment of crisis,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a resource and referral agency. “Until we have a fully funded universal child care system in the United States, working families and early educators — particularly those in our communities of color — will continue to struggle. In the long run, without dependable, nurturing care, our children will pay the greatest price.”
* Story originally published by EdSource.