Childcare: Are costs rising as COVID aid runs out? | opinion

As bad as you think the childcare crisis is right now, it’s only going to get worse. The sector has lost nearly 100,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels, while thousands of programs have been permanently closed and tens of thousands of classrooms remain empty. The only thing holding back a full landslide is a thin web of federal pandemic funds, but those funds are about to expire. For the good of America’s families and economy, Congress must act now – beginning with the lame duck session – to permanently repair this critical infrastructure.

The three COVID-19 relief bills spent a total of $53 billion on child care, almost 10 times the usual meager annual federal spending. These funds were literally a lifeline as the programs struggled with crippling staff shortages, limited enrollment, and inflation.

According to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 92 percent of daycare centers depended on pandemic grants to keep the doors open. “The scholarship is that only one thing that kept us from closing our facility,” said an educator at a major religious program in South Carolina.

A follow-up poll conducted this month found that almost half of center managers believe they will have to start charging if funds run out in the next two years, and many are unsure how they will survive in the face of a likely flight of staff.

Parents will feel the hit from both reduced childcare supply and reduced childcare support. The head of Mississippi’s Department of Human Services recently said more than 12,000 children will lose their subsidized places in the fall of 2024. Similarly, West Virginia this month ended free childcare for more than 6,000 families considered essential workers, prompting one parent to say this about their new $900-a-month childcare bill: ” I feel hopeless to be honest.”

More hopelessness is on the way unless the federal government makes solid lasting investments in the country’s neglected childcare system. While states have done their best, and in some cases handed over historically large amounts of funding, they rely heavily on federal pandemic funds. Virginia, for example, has allocated more than $200 million in state funds to create caps on parenting fees and increase funding for providers, but the program still relies on half a billion dollars in federal funding that doesn’t are easy to replace.

In fact, almost every state’s desperate attempt to stem the bleeding is closely tied to the end of federal funding. From Michigan to Alabama, states have handed out well-deserved bonuses to encourage educators to stay. Alabama offers $3,000 quarterly for full-time employees. Utah gave out $2,000 in bonuses earlier this year.

But these and other incentives have been made possible by federal pandemic grants. What happens when they run out? It remains to be seen whether any states will follow the lead of New Mexico, whose voters just enshrined a permanent source of large childcare funds in the state constitution.

The topic cannot wait until 2024. A driving force behind the staffing shortage is the persistently under-remunerated programs. Childcare is very expensive due to the inevitably low child-to-adult ratio, so the programs operate on tight margins, despite sky-high fees. While pandemic funding has allowed the programs to marginally increase their wages to a median of $14 an hour – dangerous as it is to raise wages on the basis of temporary funds – their compensation has been outbid by large corporations that are far more attractive offered packages.

Getting educators, particularly well-qualified ones, back into the classroom will require significant amounts of sustained public funding and time to recruit and train staff. Politicians at all levels need to understand how fragile the childcare system is today. It’s time to find real solutions; Relying on tax credits or employer generosity is a band-aid for a bleed.

While childcare has often been subsumed into culture wars, even in a divided Congress, there is some hope for bipartisan action. The first step is to include a substantial increase in appropriations in the omnibus spending bill being negotiated at the current lame duck meeting; few inclusions are more urgent or important.

A broader compromise could be found in the future. While improving child care has long been a Democratic priority, a Republican bill calling for competitive pay for child care educators and a reduction in parenting fees — though critically lacking a funding mechanism — has 15 Senate GOP co-sponsors. If senators can convince their peers in the House of Representatives, perhaps Congress can defy conventional wisdom about legislative deadlock and stand up for America’s families.

For whatever reason one approaches childcare—as a job enabler for parents, as an educational foundation for children, as an economic imperative for businesses, as a pillar of strong families and marriages—the common pain point runs deep and broad, crossing the lines of ideology and Income and Geography.

Parents who stay at home also need support. We can no longer pretend that childcare is the sole responsibility of a single household or that the market can ever sort it out. Childcare creates social value and is therefore entitled to social support.

The damage from inaction is hard to overstate, but easy to predict. If the sector goes over the cliff, America will face a childcare wasteland as the 2024 election cycle picks up steam. Quality childcare is becoming a luxury that is hard to find for all but the wealthiest. Parents will face difficult decisions on how to provide for their families, which will likely result in increased use of unlicensed programs of questionable quality. The economy will slow down. Birth rates will fall even further as lack of child care prevents couples from choosing their preferred family size.

This is a totally avoidable future. The deadline is not hidden. The only question is whether the public can be made to understand that the approaching catastrophe is a problem for all of us, and whether politicians will finally redeem their alleged support for American families. One way or another, the childcare cliff is coming.

Elliot Haspel is a senior fellow at the think tank Capita and the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.