Parents who drop off their young children at the Kiddie Campus Childcare Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, consider themselves lucky.
Britni Nuñez earns $17.50 an hour at a chicken factory. She and her husband, a factory worker, spend $250 a week to send baby Zania here. “We both work,” she told correspondent Rita Braver, “so if we didn’t have childcare, one of us would have to stay home. … If it was me paying, it would be half my check every week.”
And it’s also hard on Robin Slaton, who’s trying to keep Kiddie Campus afloat: “Yeah, it’s just been a struggle,” she said.
As the owner of this establishment, she faced financial problems before COVID. Then, when the virus hit and enrollment plummeted, she had to start laying off teachers. “I started by firing some,” Slaton said. “Then my management team. I just couldn’t afford the highest paid employees.”
Braver asked, “As COVID started to die down, did parents want to send their kids away?”
“The issue wasn’t how many kids we could enroll; we have a waiting list, over 50 kids,” Slaton said. “Five of our classrooms are closed because we can’t find teachers to hire.”
“Why don’t you find more teachers?”
“It’s the low wages we pay. Then we have Hobby Lobby paying $18 an hour with some benefits, and we just can’t match that.”
Unlike the craft and hobby chain, Slaton says it can only afford to pay its employees an average of $13 an hour without raising prices beyond what families expect. it serves can afford. Thus, she is trapped in a vicious circle.
And she is not alone.
“There is a crisis for American children, their families and child care workers,” said Lea Austin, who directs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkley. She said many other countries offer subsidized child care for young children to all parents. But things in the United States went from bad to worse.
Braver asked, “What has the pandemic done to childcare availability?”
“We’ve lost about 16,000 child care programs across the country, about 131,000 jobs,” Austin replied.
Federal COVID emergency relief funds provided $39 billion to support child care, help struggling centers and some parents, like Rikael Franklin. She works as a caregiver at Kiddie Campus and, as an “essential worker”, she now receives vouchers to pay for her two children, who are enrolled here. But when that money ran out, she said, “If I didn’t have vouchers, I don’t think I would be able to work, because all my check would go straight to them.
President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would provide permanent help with child care costs. But that legislation has stalled, and Mari Slinker, an essential worker at a food production plant, whose four-year-old daughter comes to Kiddie Campus, says if the vouchers go away it will mean a struggle: “No more hours additional time, less time with my daughter.”
But there may be even more bad news on the horizon. Kiddie Campus owner Robin Slaton said she couldn’t keep fighting to make ends meet. “I actually decided, after 24 years, that it was in my best interests for my health to put this daycare up for sale,” she said.
She plans to start an organization to help child care centers across the country lobby for more support. But in the meantime, if she can’t sell Kidde Campus, she said she would be forced to close. “And I feel bad for saying that, because I know the community needs it.”
And Mari Slinker fears the worst for families like hers: “Stress, more stress, more worries – that constant question, is my child okay today?
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Lea Austin on the childcare crisis today
For more information:
Story produced by Sari Aviv. Publisher: Chad Cardin.