Child care is in crisis. Here’s what’s being done about it

There is more than one way to calculate the cost of childcare.

The sticker price for families is certainly high: Massachusetts tuition is the highest among the 50 states. But the system takes other tolls.

Most childcare providers run their businesses on razor-thin margins and can only afford to pay their staff around the state’s minimum wage. And there are broader impacts: parents stay out of the workforce, businesses are understaffed and children miss out on educational opportunities.

While this struggle is not new, the pandemic has made it harder to ignore. As staff lay off and centers closed, a struggling system was pushed closer to breaking point. And more business leaders and politicians began to see child care not as a private burden for families and caregivers, but as a pressing public problem.

Children play at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Children play at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Here’s a closer look at how early childhood education got to this moment, and how stakeholders hope to move forward:

How did we get here?

For decades, the US child care system has made do with more limited and targeted government support, compared to other similar countries. This means most families seek arrangements in what can be a dizzying private marketplace: they turn to family members, neighbors or centre-based options.

The last time federal policymakers considered overhauling that system was in 1971. Then-President Richard Nixon pushed through a bill that would have established universal kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. He vetoed it.

Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, said the president “rejects a congressional proposal that promises far more than we can deliver,” referring to both the cost and logistics of government-provided care.

But Nixon himself said there were other concerns driving his veto. He called the idea of ​​universal childcare “radical … really a long leap in the dark” because it would likely drive more parents — especially mothers — out of the home and into the workforce.

President Richard Nixon at a labor convention in 1971. (AP)
President Richard Nixon at a labor convention in 1971. (AP)

Fifty years later, American families have taken the plunge anyway, said Latoya Gayle, senior director of advocacy for Neighborhood Villages, an early education and child care nonprofit. A 2019 industry report found that about three-quarters of Massachusetts children under 5 are in child care for at least part of each week.

“Women go to work and fathers go to work. And then who takes care of that child?” Gayle asked.

Like many corners of the economy, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the simmering shortcomings of the childcare industry. For one, the essential nature of child care services became impossible to ignore when most providers closed their doors for months during the early days of the pandemic.

Everyone had a childcare problem at the same time.

“For the first time ever, I think a lot of other actors in the system were completely affected by people’s lack of child care, and this was an unprecedented national scenario,” said Nonie Lesaux, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care. explain.

Even before the pandemic, a 2019 report by the Bipartisan Policy Project found that the state had about 103,000 fewer child care seats than needed — a supply gap of nearly 33%.

Widespread staff furloughs that came after 2020 worsened the situation. At its worst, the state’s child care workforce had shrunk by about 19% as of early 2021. While the labor force has rebounded in the past year, it is still down 12%, according to the University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Childcare Employment.

An empty classroom at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An empty classroom at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Two years into the pandemic, the state is still about 8,000 short of the seats it had pre-pandemic. “It’s a dynamic that we have to keep in mind as we go about this … we can’t take three years to figure out the policy,” said Colin Jones, a senior policy analyst at the Mass. Budget & Policy Centre.

Can the federal government help fix this?

When it comes to federal (and state) policy, it can often take three years to get major bills through — if they make it to the finish line at all.

So it can be frustratingly unclear if and when more federal support for child care might come.

President Biden’s social spending bill, called “Build Back Better,” included a plan to guarantee affordable child care to families in participating states. The bill would have increased federal child care subsidies and gradually expanded the benefit to reach more middle-income families.

But this account is on ice after resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) on his high price tag. Manchin’s office says fighting inflation and paying off the national debt are bigger priorities.

Meanwhile, a group of senators is working on a more targeted — and less generous — version of that legislation.

What is being done in Massachusetts?

Early childhood advocates in Massachusetts, however, are noticing an unprecedented level of movement on Beacon Hill. In March, a special legislative commission on the cost of early education and care released a report that called on the state to invest “in both quality and access” to early childhood care. The report recommended spending about $1.5 billion a year.

That seemed like a green light for the Common Start Coalition, a group of lawmakers, advocates and other stakeholders that drafted a bill in 2021 aimed at making just that kind of investment. The Common Start bill included several major proposals, such as a 7% cap on family spending on childcare and an expansion of who is eligible for government subsidies well into the middle class.

That bill also stalled.

But then, in mid-May, the Joint Committee on Education introduced a scaled-down version. It lost the 7% spending cap and would expand subsidies more narrowly. Advocates say the bill could cross the finish line before lawmakers leave for summer recess in July.

Amy O’Leary, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Early Education for All, explained that it is rare to act so quickly on a set of proposals after a legislative commission’s policy report.

She said she was also encouraged by the time and consideration lawmakers gave these measures. O’Leary noted that significant policy changes often take years to pass. Take, for example, the landmark Student Opportunity Act. The 2019 law, which dramatically updated the state’s K-12 public school funding formula, took five years to become law, from creation to passage.

“We know it’s ultimately a multi-session strategy,” O’Leary said. “We’re really hopeful between the state budget process and the pending legislation that we’re going to see significant progress.”

O’Leary pointed to the state budget proposals for FY23 as an important step forward on their own. The House, Senate and governor’s proposals all include about $300 million in new resources for child care. While they may fall short of the legislative commission’s more ambitious funding goal of $1.5 billion, the proposals are significantly higher than traditional state funding increases, which have barely kept pace with inflation.

What can be done without policy action?

Meanwhile, some child care providers and preschools have seized an opportunity in the pandemic era to make change before the Legislature acts.

After welcoming children to school in the morning, Newtowne School Principal Caitlin Malloy cradles two students in a soft canoe.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
After welcoming children to school in the morning, Newtowne School Principal Caitlin Malloy cradles two students in a soft canoe. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When Newtowne School in Cambridge found itself in a cycle of high teacher turnover, director Caitlin Malloy – then new to the job – said she wanted to move quickly.

“This is happening because we are not paying [teachers] enough,” Malloy admitted. “We can hold it together with Scotch tape for a while, but we’re really going to risk the quality of our programming.”

So Malloy began proposing a solution: Newtowne would pay its staff like kindergarten teachers in their home district of Cambridge — without raising tuition for parents.

In pre-pandemic times, that comparison wouldn’t have added up. But the government’s response to the pandemic changed the math. Newtowne had access to a federal pandemic business loan as well as emergency grants. It could draw on that money, plus some of the school’s capital fund, to give teachers what amounts to a massive raise.

And so far, she said, it’s worked. Those employees she really values ​​- many of them young women – are sticking around. “There were people who just said, ‘Wow, that actually feels it.’ [this] can be a career,” Malloy said.

Art teacher Amanda McCracken works on a painting project with students in the art studio at Newtowne School in Cambridge.  (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Art teacher Amanda McCracken works on a painting project with students in the art studio at Newtowne School in Cambridge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Newtowne School is somewhat of an outlier in its ability to launch this pilot program. Most of its families can afford to pay tuition that is higher than the state average. And many childcare providers don’t have a capital fund to draw on.

But even with those benefits, Malloy said the school can only sustain the experiment for a few years. She called it a “leap of faith” for now — because she hopes the state or federal government will come through to catch Newtowne before the money runs out.

Can childcare ever be free for all?

Unlike the K-12 public school system, early education and child care services are provided through a combination of public resources—such as the federal Head Start system and community centers—but also private centers, in-home child care providers, and more.

“[Child care] is a complex market and a complex policy situation,” said Elizabeth Davis, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota.

She explained that it may not be possible to change from a blended delivery system to something similar to public schools. For example, she said, expanding the public school system for 3- and 4-year-olds could negatively impact private providers because children that age are cheaper to care for than infants. Taking them out of the early education equation cuts into already slim profit margins.

But that doesn’t mean the government can’t step in to make childcare much more affordable – or even free.

“There aren’t many problems that can be fixed with more money, but this is one of them,” added Abby Copeman Petig, research director at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Copeman Petig said most states and cities already have good systems in place to get money to providers and families. The government just needs to send very more of it to them.

The question now is whether that money will come — and whether it will be enough.

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