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Why can’t we fix child care’s failings​?


(The last in a series on the lack of child care in Columbia County)

GHENT—New York State has barely half as many early child care slots as demand would require, with the gap in rural areas exceeding that in urban ones, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The infant and toddler child care crisis in particular is estimated to cost the state $9.8 billion every year, according to the Council for a Strong America. Compared to other developed nations, the U.S. is ranked 40th (of 41) in its childcare policies and practices, according to UNICEF.

What should we do to address the issue?

At the hearing before the State Senate Standing Committee on Children and Families mentioned in prior articles, the same suggestions were repeatedly put forward: (1) increase wages for child care workers, many of whom currently earn poverty-level wages; (2) raise the income eligibility level for subsidies available to families, so that two-wage earner families may be eligible; (3) create an online and simplified enrollment process to obtain subsidies, because a significant number of eligible families do not apply for the current subsidies due to the cumbersome process; (4) create a universal child care system for all families regardless of income or immigration status.

In her proposed fiscal year 2024 budget Governor Hochul has put forward a number of actions intended to address the childcare crisis. These include a tax credit to businesses for the creation and expansion of child care slots; raising the income level for subsidies to the maximum allowed by federal law; putting the application process for subsidies online, and directing unspent federal funds to provide $389 million in bonuses for child care workers and recruitment assistance for child care providers.

And while all the budget proposals are positive, all of them also miss key needs and shortchange priorities.

The greatest challenge in Columbia County is the lack of infant and toddler slots. Enticing businesses to create or enlarge child care will not have a meaningful impact in a county that lacks the types of businesses likely to be motivated to create child care programs nor to enlarge care numbers significantly.

Workforce challenges, which must be met for slots to open, like retention bonuses, are largely unaddressed.

The average wage of child care workers is less than that of parking lot attendants, animal caretakers and funeral aides, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. As noted in last week’s article, in the capital region 97% percent of all job categories are paid more than child care workers.

The experts say the calculus is simple: capacity depends on workforce. If there is no more capacity, greater subsidies offer only a theoretical help.

Child care needs to offer more than the warehousing or entertaining of children, and specific interactions are essential to achieving key brain development in the early years. Provider groups, such as those in the Empire State Campaign for Child Care, urge that the 2024 budget should include $1 billion to increase wages to attract, retain and train staff to meet quality standards.

Within this county, a promising partnership directed at workforce development and expanding home child care capacity has just started. Columbia-Greene Workforce NY (Workforce), Columbia-Greene Community College (C-GCC) and Hudson-based Child Care Connections, a program of Family of Woodstock (Family), spent two years analyzing the local landscape and developing a strategy to address local needs.

According to Chris Nardone, director of Workforce, the Family Child Care Training program will provide training, equipment, and physical plant modifications to persons opening or expanding in-home child care programs. C-GCC will provide administrative oversight and support, and the participants will benefit from Family’s extensive expertise in training and training materials.

Income-eligible participants will attend without charge, through federally-sourced funding distributed by Workforce. The training will be in the evenings or on weekends to accommodate participants who work during the day.

It will take place at 351 Fairview Avenue in Hudson, a site more accessible than C-GCC’s campus. The course will run at least twice during every college semester, and may also hold summer sessions, according to Amanda Karch, C-GCC’s director of Community Engagement and Professional Development.

After the six-week course, attendees will have covered all of the topics necessary to be fully certified to run a facility (such as health and safety requirements, best practices for child development, and business planning) and to receive state subsidies.

Workforce will pay for many costs associated with operating an in-home program, such as installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, testing water quality, obtaining medical clearance and background checks of all family members, and remediating safety hazards.

The program will enroll its second training class in April.

But all these state and local efforts will only scratch the surface of a problem that is national in scope, as the comparisons between this country and other developed nations show.

Our neighbors in Berkshire (Massachusetts) and Litchfield (Connecticut) counties describe the same crisis and the same needs: a desert especially barren for infant and toddler care, poor wages for a workforce that largely consists of women and people of color who need government aid to survive.

Costs there are beyond the reach of two-working parent households and yet program rates do not afford care providers a meaningful profit, and parents are forced out of the workforce to care for their children, stunting their earnings and ambitions and exacerbating workforce shortages. Left behind are poorly-prepared children starting school already behind both socially and developmentally.

As Katherine von Haefen, director of Community Impact for Berkshire United Way, summed up: “there is a national crisis in early childhood education that has been building for more than 20 years and has worsened since the Pandemic. Public-private solutions are necessary.”

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