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Perspective: America is barreling toward a child care cliff

Without federal assistance, quality child care may become a luxury good as COVID-19 aid expires

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

However bad you think the child care crisis is right now, it’s about to get worse. The sector has lost nearly 100,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels, while thousands of programs have closed permanently and tens of thousands of classrooms sit empty. The only thing holding back a full landslide is a thin net of federal pandemic funds, but those funds expire soon. For the sake of America’s families and economy, Congress must act now — beginning in the lame-duck 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 literal lifeline as programs wrestle with crippling staffing shortages, constrained enrollment and inflation.

Ninety-two percent of child care centers relied on pandemic grants to keep the doors open, according to a survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The grant money is the only thing that has kept us from having to close our facility,” one educator at a large faith-based program in South Carolina said.

A follow-up survey out this month found nearly half of center directors believe they will have to raise fees when the funds run out over the next two years, and many are not sure how they will survive in the face of a likely staff exodus.

Parents will feel the blow both from reduced child care supply and reduced child care support. The head of Mississippi’s Department of Human Services recently said that more than 12,000 children will lose their subsidized slots come fall 2024. Similarly, this month West Virginia ended free child care for more than 6,000 families that were deemed essential workers, leading one parent to say about her new $900 a month child care bill, “I feel hopeless, to be honest.”

More hopelessness is on the way unless the federal government makes robust permanent investments into the nation’s neglected child care system. While states have been doing their best, and in some cases passing historically large amounts of funding, they are heavily reliant on the federal pandemic funds. Virginia, for instance, has put in more than $200 million of state money to help create caps on parent fees and increase funding for providers, but the scheme is still reliant on half a billion dollars of federal funds there is no easy way to replace.

In fact, nearly every state’s desperate attempt to stanch the bleeding is deeply entwined with the expiring federal funding. From Michigan to Alabama, states have been handing out well-earned bonuses to entice early childhood educators to stay. Alabama is offering $3,000 quarterly for full-time staff. Utah gave out $2,000 bonuses earlier this year.

But these 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 enshrined a permanent source of major child care funding into the state constitution.

The issue cannot wait until 2024. A driving force behind the staffing shortages is the persistently inadequate compensation offered by programs. Child care is very expensive due to necessarily low child-adult ratios, so programs operate on tight margins despite sky-high fees. While the pandemic funding allowed programs to marginally boost their wages to a median of $14 an hour — dangerous as it is to raise wages on the back of temporary money — their compensation was outbid by major corporations offering far more attractive packages. 

Getting educators, especially well-qualified ones, back in classrooms will require significant amounts of permanent public funding and the time to recruit and train staff. Policymakers at every level must understand how fragile the child care system now is. The time has come to find real solutions; relying on tax credits or the largesse of employers is a Band-Aid over a hemorrhage.

While child care has often been subsumed into culture wars, there is some hope for bipartisan action even in a divided Congress. The first step is to include a substantial funding increase in the omnibus spending bill being negotiated in the current lame-duck session; few inclusions are more urgent or important.

Moving forward, there may be a broader compromise to be found. While improving child care is a longstanding Democratic priority, a Republican bill that calls for paying child care educators competitively and reducing parent fees — although crucially lacking a funding mechanism — has 15 Senate GOP co-sponsors. If senators can convince their counterparts in the House, perhaps Congress can defy the conventional wisdom about legislative gridlock and step up for America’s families. 

Whatever rationale one approaches child care from — as a work enabler for parents, an educational foundation for children, an economic necessity for companies, a bolster for strong families and marriages — the shared pain point is deep and broad, crossing lines of ideology, income and geography.

Stay-at-home parents, too, need support. We can no longer pretend child care is entirely an individual household’s responsibility, nor that the market can ever fix it. Child care produces social value and thus has a claim on society’s backing.

The damage from inaction is difficult to overstate yet easy to predict. If the sector goes over the cliff, America will face a child care wasteland just as the 2024 election cycle is ramping up. Quality child care will become a luxury good, nearly impossible to find for all but the wealthiest. Parents will face wrenching choices about how to provide for their families, likely increasing usage of unlicensed programs of questionable quality. The economy will slow down. Birthrates will fall yet lower as couples cannot choose their preferred family size for want of child care.

This is a wholly avoidable future. The deadline is not hidden. The only question is whether the public can be made to realize that the onrushing disaster is a problem for all of us, and whether policymakers finally make good on their claimed support of American families. One way or another, the child care cliff is coming.

Elliot Haspel is a senior fellow at the think tank Capita and author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”