States tackle child care shortages after federal efforts halt

In New Mexico, educators won pay raises. In Iowa, 16-year-olds can now supervise 15 children. In Montana, caregivers can monitor 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 called the situation “a classic example of a market failure”.

State legislatures, often using federal stimulus funds, passed more than 200 child care bills in 2021, and another 100 bills passed in the first half of 2022 — a rate of legislation twice the average for recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet while there is consensus that child care needs to be fixed, there is little agreement on the solution. In a sort of laboratory of competing ideas, states try out different models, largely based on their domestic politics. Democratic-majority states have been more likely to supplement stimulus dollars — which will expire by 2024 — with state revenue. Those with Republican governments have often tried to relax regulations regarding class size and licensing.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the visibility of long-standing childcare challenges as parents struggle to work during lockdowns and quarantines. About 10% of child care programs nationwide closed between 2019 and 2021, according to advocacy group Child Care Aware.

“Parents wait in parking lots all night trying to get a spot,” said Elliot Haspel, an early childhood education expert at the Robins Foundation, a philanthropy in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s really dystopian.”

And while college-educated mothers who drifted away from the workforce during the pandemic have mostly returned, that’s not necessarily true for less-educated mothers, who typically find it harder to afford childcare. their children. Fewer of them have returned to the labor market, which has contributed to labor shortages in some industries.

In the United States, most families receive little government support for care before children enter kindergarten. Two-thirds of mothers of children under 6 and 94% of fathers in this age group work for pay, according to federal data. Yet child care is unaffordable for more than 60% of families who need it, according to the Treasury Departmentand half of all Americans live in places where child care is scarce.

Low-income families who qualify for state or federal assistance often struggle to get it.

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

Her brother, who lives with his family, is home with his daughters in the evenings, but goes to his own work during the day. That’s when Mrs. Welch, tired of working all night, drives 7-year-old Mia to school and then takes care of her one-year-old child, Ava. Ms. Welch sleeps in 45 minute increments when the baby is napping.

“I do my best to find the energy to play with her as much as possible,” she said.

She tried to enroll in a subsidized child care program, but her application got bogged down in bureaucracy.

The New Jersey General Assembly is considering the bills it would create 1,000 new spaces 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 nationwide right to child care, capping costs at 7% of most families’ income. But the bill fizzled out, largely due to opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, who worried about the cost of the legislation and certain provisions, such as credits. child tax, which he said would discourage parents from working.

Two other Senate Democrats, Patty Murray and Tim Kaine, announced a less ambitious proposal this month that would include child care funding enacted as part of the budget reconciliation process, avoiding a Republican filibuster. But the main objectives of budget negotiations are now inflation, climate change and health care, which raises the question of whether we can expect child care relief 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 found reasons for hope locally.

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

The state has also required child care programs that accept state grants to participate in a quality rating and improvement system called the Texas Rising Star, which rates centers.

While there’s little bipartisan cooperation in Washington on child custody legislation, that’s not the case in Texas, Summerville noted.

“There’s a strong understanding on both sides of the aisle that child care underpins our entire economy,” he said, because parents who don’t have access to child care cannot fill vacancies. “This is a state that really wants to make sure families work.”

In Colorado, where Democrats control state government, some Republican state lawmakers were enthusiastic about the “family, friend, neighbor” element of a recent $100 million investment. child care package, funded with federal support. The provision will allow grandparents and other caregivers – an important source of care – to enroll in early childhood education training and then get money to upgrade their home for safety and education.

“In a world where it’s hard for a family to survive on one source of income, child care is a critical need,” said Republican Senator Jerry Sonnenberg. “Child care issues are non-partisan.

Strongly conservative states have also begun to act, often by reducing regulations.

Montana has raised the maximum allowed ratio of children to adults. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Kenneth Bogner, a Republican, said he did so at the request of suppliers in his rural district who are struggling to keep up with demand.

Children’s 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 won last year. about $11 per hour on average in Montana, and are attracted to retail jobs.

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

He argued that stimulus funds had artificially heated the childcare market – although affordability and supply issues predated the pandemic. He acknowledged that many workers in his district cannot afford market-rate child care and said families must “make serious choices about whether or not they want have children”.

In Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a bill Thursday, on the Democratic opposition, which increases the number of children a single adult is allowed to supervise in a child care centre. There can now be seven 2-year-olds per adult instead of six — exceeding national recommendations — and 10 three-year-old children instead of eight. The measure also allows 16-year-olds to take care of up to 15 children over the age of 5 without adult supervision.

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 the state’s oil and gas revenue for early childhood education, which would provide $127 million a year. .

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

The measure could also fund long-term wage increases for childcare workers.

Ivydel Natachu, 52, is an 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 the help of odd jobs and food stamps.

With temporary federal stimulus funds supporting New Mexico child care, she now earns $15 an hour; if the constitutional amendment passes, it could raise his salary to $18 an hour.

Ms Natachu said that during the pandemic she had seen colleagues resign after just a few weeks of work, attracted by easier and better paying jobs in other fields. She said that given their expertise in child development, child care workers should be paid like public school teachers.

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

Julio V. Miller