Learey: Is the child care market on an economic death spiral? | Chroniclers

Across the United States, headlines in urban, suburban and rural news markets are announcing the “child care crisis.” Programs can’t run at full capacity because they can’t hire enough staff, and others shut down completely. Families are left behind. And, women have dropped out of the workforce at an alarming rate since the start of the pandemic, as the challenges of child care fall on them. Given that women constitute the main workforce in child care, this is a double whammy for the sector.

The challenges of child care existed before the start of the COVID pandemic. Although there has been wide recognition of the important role that quality child care plays in economic development, investments in the sector have not followed. The feelings of “parents should stay home with their children” of “not having children if you cannot afford them” are anachronistic and out of place in today’s reality. Caring for children and supporting their optimal development, whether at home or in a formal preschool setting, contributes significantly to economic prosperity and should be invested accordingly. Childcare empowers people to participate in the workforce and gives our future workforce the foundation they need to be successful in school and beyond.

There are promising developments in national and federal legislation. Law 45 in Vermont is a big step forward in making child care more affordable for families and in helping early childhood educators get and pay for professional development. The Build Back Better law currently being considered at the federal level includes several elements to expand childcare services, including lowering tuition fees for families and the creation of a free universal preschool.

The success of these investments will depend on our ability to have enough teachers and space to meet demand. Considering that childcare capacity is diminishing due to an already insufficient supply, there is reason to fear that these investments will come too late. Between December 2015 and December 2020, Vermont lost 2.5 percent of reported child care capacity, a total of 821 spaces (https://dcf.vermont.gov/sites/dcf/files/CDD/Reports/December_2020_CC_Programs_Report.pdf). During the same period, the state lost 390 regulated providers, the vast majority of which were registered family day care centers, small businesses that are a key component in keeping the sector healthy.

There is an immediate need to stabilize daycare centers so as not to lose more places. The main factor in the loss of capacity at the moment is the understaffing. Classes are closing because there are not enough teachers. While we don’t yet understand all the reasons for “The Big Resignation”, we do know that the competition for employees is at an all-time high. Working with young children is rewarding and exhausting and involves more health risks than usual in the days of COVID, when our youngest citizens cannot get vaccinated yet and most of whom cannot wear masks. . Wages don’t reflect the value, stress, or risk of the job, and it’s hard to keep people in the field when they can make $ 3-5 more per hour for easier, less risky work.

What can we do to keep people in the field and attract more people to join us so that we have one child care industry to invest in? Essentially, we need to immediately make it more lucrative to be an early educator. One idea is to increase salaries by offering retention and recruiting bonuses. While more money doesn’t always lead to retention, in an industry where the average salary is $ 13.27 and the work is exhausting and now risky, a raise is warranted. A second idea is to offer free child care to those working in child care programs. Finding mechanisms to give educators access to affordable health care would be a much appreciated benefit since many programs cannot provide it to their teachers. Finally, a third idea would be to create a student debt assistance program, a kind of “loan forgiveness program”. All of these ideas could be supported by COVID relief funds. While this is one-time dollars and not a way to sustain these initiatives, it will get us through the crisis in the short term while longer term investments will be anchored in legislation and budgets. If we don’t act now, there may not be an area to invest in for the future. It is much easier to consolidate what we have than it is to rebuild from scratch. Our children, our families, our employees and all other employers deserve it.

Chloe Learey is the Executive Director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and sits on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council.

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