As bad as you think the child care crisis is right now, it’s about to get worse. The sector has lost nearly 100,000 workers pre-pandemic levels, while thousands of programs have permanently closed and tens of thousands of classrooms are empty. The only thing holding back a complete landslide is a thin trickle of federal pandemic funds, but those funds are expiring soon. For the sake of American families and the economy, Congress must act now – starting with the lame session – to permanently fix this critical infrastructure.
The three COVID-19 relief bills gave a total of $53 billion to child care, nearly 10 times the usual meager annual federal spending. These funds have been a lifeline as programs grapple with crippling staff shortages, limited enrollment and inflation.
Ninety-two percent of child care centers relied on pandemic subsidies to keep doors open, according to a investigation of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The grant money is the only thing that kept us from closing our facility,” said an educator at a large faith-based program in South Carolina.
A follow-up survey This month, nearly half of center managers believe they will have to raise fees when funds run out over the next two years, and many are unsure how they will survive a likely exodus of staff.
Parents will feel the blow from both the reduction in childcare provision and the reduction in childcare support. The head of the Mississippi Department of Social Services recently said that more than 12,000 children will lose their subsidized slots in the fall of 2024. Similarly, this month, West Virginia ended free childcare for more than 6,000 families considered essential workers, leading one parent to say of his new $900-a-month childcare bill: “To be honest, I feel hopeless.
More desperation is on the way unless the federal government makes robust permanent investments in the country’s neglected child care system. While states have been do his bestand in some cases passing historically large amounts of funding, they are heavily reliant on federal pandemic funds. Virginiafor example, invested more than $200 million of state money to help cap parent fees and increase funding for providers, but the program still depends on half a billion dollars in federal funds that there is no easy way to replace.
In fact, nearly every state’s desperate attempt to stem the bleeding is deeply tied to the expiry of federal funding. From Michigan to Alabama, states have handed out well-deserved bonuses to entice early childhood educators to stay. Alabama offers $3,000 per quarter for full-time staff. Utah gave $2,000 in bonuses earlier this year.
But those and other incentives were made possible by federal pandemic grants. What happens when they run out? It remains to be seen if any states will follow the lead of New Mexico, whose voters just dedicated a permanent source of major funding for child care. in the state constitution.
The problem cannot wait until 2024. One of the drivers of staff shortages is the still insufficient remuneration offered by the programs. Childcare is very expensive due to necessarily low child-to-adult ratios, so programs operate on tight margins despite exorbitant fees. Although pandemic funding has allowed programs to slightly increase their salaries at a median of $14 an hour – as dangerous as it is to raise wages on the back of temporary money – their pay has been bid up by big companies offering much more attractive packages.
Getting educators, especially skilled educators, back into classrooms will require significant amounts of ongoing public funding and time to recruit and train staff. Policy makers at all levels need to understand just how fragile the child care system currently is. The time has come to find real solutions; relying on tax credits or employer largesse is a band-aid on a hemorrhage.
While child care has often been subsumed in culture wars, there is hope for bipartisan action even in a divided Congress. The first step is to include a substantial increase in funding in the omnibus spending bill being traded in the current lame session; few inclusions are more urgent or important.
In the future, there may be a broader compromise be found. While improving child care has been a longtime Democratic priority, a Republican bill that calls for paying child care educators competitively and lowering parent fees — though it sorely lacking in funding mechanism – a 15 Senate GOP co-sponsors. If senators can convince their counterparts in the House, perhaps Congress can defy conventional wisdom on legislative gridlock and intervene for American families.
Whatever the reason for child care – as a job enabler for parents, an educational foundation for children, an economic necessity for businesses, support for strong families and marriages – the shared pain point is deep and broad, crossing lines of ideology, income and geography.
Stay-at-home parents also need support. We can no longer pretend that childcare is entirely the responsibility of an individual household, or that the market can always fix it. Childcare produces social value and is therefore entitled to the support of society.
The damage caused by inaction is difficult to overestimate but easy to predict. If the sector steps over the cliff, America will face a child care wilderness just as the 2024 election cycle gathers pace. Quality child care will become a luxury good, almost impossible to find for all but the very wealthy. Parents will be faced with harrowing choices about how to support their families, which will likely increase the use of unlicensed programs of dubious quality. The economy will slow down. Birth rates will decline further as couples cannot choose their preferred family size for lack of childcare.
It’s a totally avoidable future. The delay is not hidden. The only question is whether the public can be made to realize that impending doom is a problem for all of us, and whether policymakers are finally heeding their claimed support for American families. One way or another, the daycare cliff is approaching.
Elliot Haspel is a senior fellow at the Capita think tank and author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”