With Child Care Scarce, States Try to Fix ‘a Broken Market’

With Child Care Scarce, States Try to Fix ‘a Broken Market’

In New Mexico, child care workers got pay raises. In Iowa, 16-year-olds can now supervise 15 children. In Montana, caregivers can watch more toddlers at a time.

With sweeping federal child care legislation stalled in Congress, dozens of states have stepped in to address a growing crisis, as many families have found services both unaffordable and scarce.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called the situation “a textbook example of a broken market.”

State legislatures, often using federal stimulus money, enacted more than 200 child-care bills in 2021, and another 100 bills were passed in the first half of 2022 — a rate of lawmaking that is twice the average of recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet while there is consensus that child care needs fixing, there is little agreement on the fix. In something of a laboratory of competing ideas, states are trying different models, largely based on their internal politics. States with Democratic majorities have been more likely to supplement stimulus dollars — which will sunset by 2024 — with state revenue. Those with Republican governments have often tried to relax regulations around class size and licensing.

The coronavirus pandemic raised the visibility of longstanding child-care challenges, as parents struggled to work during closures and quarantine periods. About 10 percent of the nation’s child-care programs closed down between 2019 and 2021, according to the advocacy group Child Care Aware.

“Parents are waiting overnight in parking lots to try to grab a spot,” said Elliot Haspel, an early childhood education expert at the Robins Foundation, a philanthropy in Richmond, Va. “It’s really dystopian.”

And while college-educated mothers who stepped away from the work force during the pandemic have mostly returned, that is not necessarily true for less-educated mothers, who typically have more trouble paying for child care. Fewer of them have returned to the work force, contributing to labor shortages in some industries.

In the United States, most families receive little government help with care before children enter kindergarten. Two-thirds of mothers of children under 6, and 94 percent of fathers of that age group, are working for pay, according to federal data. Yet child care is unaffordable for more than 60 percent of families who need it, according to the Treasury Department, and half of all Americans live in places where child care is in short supply.

Low-income families who qualify for state or federal support often have trouble getting it.

Victoria Welch, 31, a single mother of two, earns $18 an hour working overnight shifts for Swissport, a cargo handling service at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Her brother, who lives with her family, is home with her daughters during the evenings, but goes to his own job during the day. That is when Ms. Welch, bleary from working through the night, drives Mia, 7, to school and then cares for her 1-year-old, Ava. Ms. Welch sleeps in 45-minute bursts when the baby naps.

“I try my best to get the energy to play with her as much as I can,” she said.

She has tried to sign up for a subsidized child-care program, but her application is mired in bureaucracy.

The New Jersey General Assembly is considering bills that would create 1,000 new seats in infant and toddler programs and centralize the state’s child-care system, which is currently regulated by a number of departments and agencies.

President Biden’s Build Back Better Act would have created a national child-care entitlement, capping costs at 7 percent of most families’ incomes. But the bill sputtered, largely because of opposition from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who was concerned about the cost of the legislation and about some provisions, like child tax credits, that he thought would discourage parents from working.

Two other Democrats in the Senate, Patty Murray and Tim Kaine announced a less ambitious proposal this month that would include child-care funding enacted through the budget reconciliation process, which would avoid a Republican filibuster. But the main focuses of the budget negotiations now are inflation, climate change and health care, raising questions about whether child-care relief can be expected from the federal government.

“We were very devastated” by the failure of Build Back Better, said Cody Summerville, executive director of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children. Even so, he said, he has found reason to be hopeful locally.

Last year, Texas increased payments to providers who serve low-income infants and toddlers, the most expensive group to care for and one plagued by shortages in Texas and nationally.

The state also required child-care programs that accept public subsidies to participate in a quality rating and improvement system called Texas Rising Star, which evaluates centers.

While there is little bipartisan cooperation in Washington on child-care legislation, that is not true in Texas, Mr. Summerville noted.

“There is a strong understanding on both sides of the aisle that child care does undergird our entire economy,” he said, because parents without access to child care cannot fill open jobs. “This is a state that really wants to make sure that families are working.”

In Colorado, where Democrats control the state government, some Republican state lawmakers were enthusiastic about the “family, friend, neighbor” element of a recent $100 million child-care package, funded with federal support. That provision will allow grandparents and other informal caregivers — a significant source of care — to sign-up for training in early education, and then get money to upgrade their homes for safety and education.

“In a world where it is difficult for a family to survive on a single source of income, child care is a critical need,” said Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican state senator. “Child care issues are not partisan.”

Solidly conservative states have begun to act as well, often by cutting regulations.

Montana has raised the maximum allowable ratio of children to adults. The sponsor of the bill, State Senator Kenneth Bogner, a Republican, said he did so at the request of providers in his rural district who struggle to meet demand.

Child advocacy organizations opposed the measure, saying it would compromise safety and quality. Xanna Burg, director of Kids Count Montana, said the state should instead subsidize higher wages for child-care workers, who last year earned about $11 an hour on average in Montana, and are being lured away by jobs in retail.

Using federal stimulus funds, Montana has capped child-care costs for low-income families at $10 a month. But the federal support will disappear by the end of 2024, and Senator Bogner predicted that state lawmakers were more likely to loosen regulations than they were to provide more funds.

He argued that stimulus money had artificially heated up the child-care market — though affordability and supply problems predated the pandemic. He acknowledged that many workers in his district cannot afford market-rate child care, and said families must “make some serious choices on whether they want to have children or not.”

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a bill on Thursday, over Democratic opposition, that raises the number of children a single adult is allowed to supervise at a child-care center. There can now be seven 2-year olds per adult instead of six — exceeding national recommendations — and 10 3-year olds instead of eight. The measure also allows 16-year-olds to provide care without adult supervision for up to 15 children over the age of 5.

Liberal states have tended to take a different, sometimes much more expensive route. This fall, voters in New Mexico will consider an amendment to the state constitution that would earmark a percentage of state oil and gas revenue for early childhood education, which would provide $127 million a year.

The amendment could allow New Mexico to continue an unusually generous program: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has made child care free through the summer of 2023 for many families earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $111,000 for a family of four.

The measure could also fund long-term pay raises for child-care workers.

Ivydel Natachu, 52, is one early childhood educator in Albuquerque who says she would benefit. She has 17 years of experience, was earning $10.50 an hour until 2020. She raised her own children with help from side jobs and food stamps.

With temporary federal stimulus funding propping up New Mexico’s child-care centers, she now earns $15 an hour; if the constitutional amendment passes, it could raise her pay to $18 an hour.

Ms. Natachu said that during the pandemic, she saw colleagues quit after just a few weeks on the job, lured away by easier, higher-paid jobs in other fields. She said that given their expertise in child development, child-care workers ought to be paid like public-school teachers.

“We are fighting for our professional wages,” she said.

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