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Child care: Solutions in search of support

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By DEBORAH E. LANS

Final article in the series

GHENT–Almost at the same moment that the state’s 2024/25 budget was adopted, the state’s Child Care Availability Task Force issued its April 2024 report making recommendations to address the child care crisis. Ironically, those recommendations were largely different from the measures embodied in the state budget. Though the Task Force urged that the state “act with urgency” to implement its recommendations, those measures will now await another budget cycle, at best.

The Task Force was composed of 41 experts from state and local agencies and non-profit groups. It met 21 times between March 2023 and December 2023 under a state mandate to recommend steps to make quality child care affordable and accessible to all New Yorkers. The solutions it proposed largely align with the recommendations of other research, advocacy and watchdog groups.

The Task Force’s principal recommendation was to “stabilize” the child care workforce. As reported in previous articles in The Columbia Paper, until the capacity of the system is increased, in other words, until there are sufficient child care slots available to meet demand, other solutions like subsidies for parents to offset cost are largely premature. In turn, capacity will only grow if and when child care providers and workers can earn a decent living from the occupation.

In New York State, 19.3% of child care workers live below the federal poverty level (a rate nearly three times that of workers in other occupations and almost 8 times the rate of K-8 teachers). Inadequate pay has led many to leave the profession and others to shy away from joining it. Retention bonuses, such as the current state budget enacted, are viewed as largely ineffectual one-and-done measures that do not stem departures from the system and that have also been inequitably implemented historically, passing over many categories of worker.

Instead of bonuses, the Task Force recommended a “permanent line of funding” that will offer child care workers the promise of continuing wage supplements, beyond what employers may be able to pay, to ensure a living wage and basic benefits like health care and to provide incentives for professional development, like tuition reimbursement. The Task Force’s fundamental message: the number one priority is to increase compensation for all members of the child care workforce.

Increasing compensation is, in turn, deemed a stepping-stone to a more permanent solution – altering the mechanism by which the state sets child care reimbursement rates (subsidies), with an eye to ensuring that providers are reimbursed at rates that match their actual costs of providing care. As the Education Trust-NY (ET-NY) has argued, if New York, like some other jurisdictions already have, were to adopt a “cost estimation model,” then child care would operate as a sustainable business model and could attract new providers and, in turn, providers could pay their workers a living wage.

Currently, subsidies are based on “market rates,” what providers charge for their services. However, studies, such as one conducted for the Raising New York Coalition, have shown that market rates do not cover what would be the true costs of providing child care in a system where employees are paid a living wage. (Wages are 80-90% of the costs of child care.)

The Task Force accordingly also urged the state to adopt a “true cost-of-care” model that will ensure a consistent and predictable funding stream to providers. As one Task Force member put it in an interview with this paper, no other business ignores its costs in setting prices. Why should the state do so in supporting child care?

As discussed in previous articles, subsidies for child care are also currently less effective than they could be for administrative reasons. Among other things, payment is tied to a child’s actual day-to-day attendance and is paid after-the-fact, and often months after child care services have been rendered. Paying subsidies based on enrollment and “up front” (just as families must do who are not eligible for subsidies) would make subsidies more appealing to providers, most of whom in this county do not currently accept direct subsidy payments from the state, and therefore also a more equitable support for lower-income families.

Jenn O’Connor of ED-NY reports that bills to “decouple” subsidies from specific attendance have passed the state legislature several years running, only to die on the governor’s desk.

“Substitute pools” of licensed workers and simplified clearance systems are also potential solutions. Meredith Chimento of the Early Care and Learning Council explains that currently every child care worker is linked to the specific, licensed provider where she works. When a worker changes employers, she must go through the clearance process anew, causing needless delays.

Similarly, when a teacher is absent, for a vacation or illness for example, there is no way for the provider to substitute another worker unless it employs extra teachers – an unlikely solution for a business already operating on a thin margin. A “substitute pool” of licensed employees available to multiple providers to meet short term needs would ease this staffing hurdle.

Lowering the barriers to opening new child care centers would obviously also help. That would require not only simplifying the off-putting mountain of regulations that scare off potential providers but also providing funding.

North East Community Center in sparsely-populated Northern Dutchess County determined in late 2021 to expand from a two-day/week morning program for toddlers to a full-day, five or six day/week center for infants and toddlers. It needed start-up funds to hire and train staff, create necessary policies, acquire supplies, rent and conform space to state requirements, all steps to be taken before the center could open and begin to see any positive cash flow.

Christine Sergent, its executive director, says that because NECC is a non-profit and its board was deeply committed to the project it was able to raise the roughly $500,000 it needed to get the center up and running. Finding space that was appropriate was also a substantial challenge.

In Columbia County, declining school enrollment has left some school districts with “surplus” space. At Taconic Hills, the superintendent and a “small but highly-engaged volunteer committee” of teachers and parents has been exploring the use of some of the district’s space to house a child care program. The idea seems like a “no-brainer,” as schools have certain facilities and capabilities already built in, such as a school nurse, cafeteria, transportation systems and maintenance staff. Moreover, operating a facility for toddlers would make their transition to a pre-K program relatively seamless.

However, the process is tricky. As a school district, Taconic Hills cannot use its own funds to operate a child care center and it also is ineligible to obtain funds through the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, which funds child care programs. As a result, Taconic Hills expects to partner with an existing and experienced provider which can access operational funding, and the district must search for grants to support necessary structural changes to its space.

At the federal level, efforts to address the crisis are also afoot. The Biden Administration has announced rules that will require states receiving federal child care assistance to cap the cost of child care for families receiving subsidies (New York already does this) and to streamline the subsidy payment and application process. A bill has been introduced in the Senate and the House that would (among other things) provide grants to assist in opening new centers, defray licensing and start-up costs and increase workers’ wages.

Some governments, outside New York, have also tackled the issue locally. In New Orleans, LA, residents voted to raise property taxes to support increasing child care workers’ wages from an average of $9.77/hour to at least $15/hour (it is up to $25/hour at certain centers meeting high quality standards), and to implement quality standards. In both Alameda County, CA, and the 1,600-resident town of Warner, MN, voters increased sales taxes by 0.5% and dedicated the funds to child care. In Anchorage, AK, voters passed a tax on marijuana sales to support child care. In Texas, a constitutional amendment passed that allows counties and municipalities to provide property tax relief to child care facilities.

Studies routinely show that Americans agree child care should be available and affordable. A 2023 study by the Century Foundation found that a majority support child care as a free service, and 70% of Americans are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports expanding child care. The local government actions described above demonstrate that voters are in fact willing to put their dollars behind their belief in the importance of such care.

Yet to date, the U.S. spends less on early childhood development and care than virtually all developed nations. As Pattern for Progress reported in its recent study, only 4 of the 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spend less on childhood development and care than the U.S. UNICEF rates the U.S. 40th among 41 developed countries in child care spending. The U.S. spends less than 0.5% of GDP on early child care and development (some $500-1,000 per year per infant or toddler). In contrast, Germany and Sweden each spend more than $18,000/child, and the average among all rich countries is $14,000/year.

Given that the availability of accessible, affordable and quality early child care has wide public support; given the importance of infant and toddler care to the intellectual and emotional development of the next generation; given that having such care anchors parents’ ability to enter and stay in the workforce and avoid poverty; and given that the lack of such care diminishes corporate productivity and the ability of our hospitals, governments and businesses to deliver services – the question arises: when will our governments, at all levels, provide the necessary supports to ensure a stable, affordable and accessible early child care system?

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