The status of faith-based child care became a flash point during the debate over the “Build Back Better” Act. While those concerns were largely addressed prior to the legislation running aground, faith-based child care programs — as well as secular programs — now face an existential threat in the form of crippling staffing shortages. Proponents of faith-based care who fought for clearer language in Build Back Better must set aside ideological differences to save the sector before it crumbles entirely, taking faith-based programs with it.

The challenge facing faith-based child care is simple: Programs can no longer offer competitive compensation. Child care programs are constrained by necessarily high fixed personnel costs, driven by limits on child-to-adult ratios. For instance, in Utah, one educator can care for a maximum of four children under the age of 2, and seven between ages 2 and 3. These ratios are critical for safety and quality, but they put programs in dire budget straits despite sky-high parent fees.

With so little slack in the line, programs scrimp the only place they can: wages. As of 2020, the median child care worker made a little more than $12 an hour with few, if any, benefits. While other industries — from retail to fast food to even gas stations — have been spiking their compensation, most child care programs have little ability to follow suit. This is why, although the overall U.S. economy is within 2% of its pre-pandemic staffing levels, the latest jobs data show that the child care industry is mired 12% below its pre-pandemic staffing. That’s a loss of 100,000 jobs. This is not a pandemic phenomenon, but an ugly new normal: the McDonald’s and Targets of the world are not going back to $12 starting wages.

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It’s no surprise, then, that faith-based child care programs across the nation are faltering and in many cases shuttering permanently. As an example, news outlets in the Wilmington, North Carolina, area recently reported that the Leland Christian Academy day care left parents scrambling for alternatives after the program shut down because of its inability to find workers.

Even when programs can stay open, staffing shortages require them to operate at reduced capacity and often at a budgetary loss.

The Idaho Statesman has reported that, “The waiting list for children to enroll at Ten Mile Community Church Day Care in Meridian is too long for Lisa Martello, the director, to count. The day care center has been operating with a shortage of at least three staff members since 2020. ... Over the last two years, Martello consistently watched employees leave Ten Mile Community Church Day Care for higher-paying jobs at the Treasure Valley hospital systems and at Amazon.”

This is true across faith traditions; for instance, many Jewish community center programs also struggle with compensation and staffing.

Faith-based programs certainly have distinct features from secular ones. For instance, they may have fewer facilities costs and access to a broader pool of volunteers. However, the economic fundamentals are the same. A 2021 report on faith-based care put out by the Bipartisan Policy Center noted, “Like many child care programs across the country, the faith-based organizations we spoke with faced challenges in keeping their child care programs financially solvent” and “interviewees dispelled a commonly held and incorrect belief that faith communities are able to provide child care services without external financial support.”

There is no credible path for these trends to improve, then, absent major permanent public funding. Anyone claiming otherwise either does not understand the economics of the sector or is being misleading. The conversation starts and ends with staff compensation, an issue which one-off recovery dollars or modest increases in subsidy funds cannot solve.

Some politicians have tried to skirt this reality with false solutions like raising child-to-adult ratios (even though states with high ratios are also suffering from shortages), allowing 16-year-olds to provide care unsupervised (regardless of the potential danger) or even forcing mothers on public assistance to work in child care programs (despite the irony that child care pays so little that most employees qualify for public assistance).

Hearteningly, though, there is growing bipartisan agreement on several child care policy goals. This week, nine Senate Republicans filed a new bill that builds on many Democratic child care priorities, such as making care free for families below 75% of state median income and ensuring subsidy payments are high enough for programs to recruit and retain a well-qualified staff. 

The rub, again, is around funding. The bill has no new dedicated funding, which would in turn change nothing on the ground. If Republicans are willing to put money where their mouth is, however, there is a chance for real negotiation and a possible path forward to save faith-based child care, and indeed the entire sector. The only other options remaining are to charge parents more or have fewer faith-based programs.

The politics around faith-based care are no doubt complicated, but there is a consensus on both sides of the aisle that faith-based care is an important component of a pluralistic system — hence its explicit inclusion in both the current subsidy system and in Build Back Better. At some point, those wary of public funding for child care programs will have to decide: Would they prefer parents have vibrant faith-based care options, or no options at all?

Elliot Haspel is a child care policy expert and author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”