States Address Child Care Shortages After Federal Efforts Stalled

In New Mexico, child care workers got pay raises. In Iowa, 16-year-olds can now supervise 15 children. In Montana, caregivers can watch more toddlers at a time.

With sweeping federal child care legislation stalled in Congress, dozens of states have stepped in to address a growing crisis as many families have found services both unaffordable and scarce.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called the situation “a textbook example of a broken market.”

State legislatures, often using federal stimulus money, introduced more than 200 child care bills in 2021, and another 100 passed in the first half of 2022 — a pace of legislation that is twice the average of recent years, according to the National Conference of State legislatures.

While there is consensus that childcare needs to be fixed, there is little agreement on the solution. In something of a laboratory of competing ideas, states are trying out different models, largely based on their internal politics. Democratic-majority states were more likely to supplement stimulus dollars — which will expire by 2024 — with state revenue. Those with Republican governments have often tried to loosen regulations on class size and licensing.

The coronavirus pandemic has raised the visibility of longstanding childcare challenges as parents have struggled to work during shutdowns and quarantine periods. About 10 percent of the nation’s child care programs closed between 2019 and 2021, according to the advocacy group Child Care Aware.

“Parents are waiting in parking lots overnight to try to grab a spot,” said Elliot Haspel, an early childhood education expert at the Robins Foundation, a philanthropy in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s really dystopian.”

And while college-educated mothers who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic have mostly returned, that’s not necessarily true for less-educated mothers, who typically have more trouble paying for child care. Fewer of them returned to the workforce, contributing to labor shortages in some industries.

In the United States, most families receive little government assistance with care before children enter kindergarten. Two-thirds of mothers of children under 6, and 94 percent of fathers in that age group, work for pay, according to federal data. Yet child care is unaffordable for more than 60 percent of families who need it, according to the Treasury Department, and half of all Americans live in places where child care is in short supply.

Low-income families who qualify for state or federal support often have trouble getting it.

Victoria Welch, 31, a single mother of two, earns $18 an hour working overnight shifts for Swissport, a cargo handling service at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Her brother, who lives with her family, is at home with her daughters at night, but goes to his own work during the day. This is when Ms. Welch, who is sick from working the night, drives Mia, 7, to school and then looks after her 1-year-old, Ava. Ms Welch sleeps in 45-minute bursts when the baby naps.

“I try my best to find the energy to play with her as much as I can,” she said.

She tried to sign up for a subsidized child care program, but her application got bogged down in bureaucracy.

The New Jersey General Assembly is considering bills that would create 1,000 new seats in infant and toddler programs and centralize the state’s child care system, which is currently regulated by a number of departments and agencies.

President Biden’s Build Back Better Act would have created a national entitlement to child care, capping costs at 7 percent of most families’ incomes. But the bill sputtered, largely because of opposition from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who worried about the cost of the legislation and about certain provisions, such as child tax credits, that he thought would discourage parents from work.

Two other Senate Democrats, Patty Murray and Tim Kaine, announced a less ambitious proposal this month that would include child care funding put in place through the budget reconciliation process, which would avoid a Republican filibuster. But the main focus of the budget negotiations is now inflation, climate change and health care, raising questions about whether childcare relief can be expected from the federal government.

“We were very devastated” by the failure of Build Back Better, said Cody Summerville, executive director of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children. Even so, he said, he found reason to be hopeful locally.

Last year, Texas increased payments to providers serving low-income infants and toddlers, the most expensive group to care for and one plagued by shortages in Texas and nationally.

The state also required child care programs that accept public subsidies to participate in a quality rating and improvement system called Texas Rising Star, which evaluates centers.

While there is little bipartisan cooperation in Washington on child care legislation, that is not true in Texas, Mr. Summerville noticed.

“There’s a strong understanding on both sides of the aisle that child care does underpin our entire economy,” he said, because parents without access to child care can’t fill open positions. “This is a state that really wants to make sure families work.”

In Colorado, where Democrats control state government, some Republican state lawmakers were enthusiastic about the “family, friend, neighbor” element of a recent $100 million child care package, funded with federal aid. That provision would allow grandparents and other informal caregivers — a significant source of care — to sign up for early education training, then get money to upgrade their homes for safety and education.

“In a world where it is difficult for a family to survive on a single source of income, child care is a critical need,” said Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican state senator. “Child care issues are not partisan.”

Staunchly conservative states have also begun to act, often by cutting regulations.

Montana increased the maximum allowable ratio of children to adults. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Kenneth Bogner, a Republican, said he did so at the request of suppliers in his rural district struggling to meet demand.

Child advocacy organizations opposed the measure, saying it would compromise safety and quality. Xanna Burg, director of Kids Count Montana, said the state should instead subsidize higher wages for child care workers, who earned an average of about $11 an hour in Montana last year, and are being lured away by retail jobs.

Using federal stimulus funds, Montana capped child care costs for low-income families at $10 a month. But the federal support will disappear by the end of 2024, and Senator Bogner predicted that state lawmakers are more likely to relax regulations than they were to provide more funds.

He argued that stimulus money had artificially heated up the childcare market — even though affordability and supply problems predated the pandemic. Acknowledging that many workers in his district can’t afford market-rate child care, he said families have to make some serious choices about whether or not to have children.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a bill Thursday over Democratic opposition that would increase the number of children a single adult is allowed to supervise at a child care center. There can now be seven 2-year-olds per adult instead of six – which exceeds national recommendations – and 10 3-year-olds instead of eight. The measure also allows 16-year-olds to provide care for up to 15 children over the age of 5 without adult supervision.

Liberal states tended to take a different, sometimes much more expensive route. This fall, New Mexico voters will consider an amendment to the state constitution that would earmark a percentage of the state’s oil and gas revenue for early childhood education, providing $127 million a year.

The amendment could allow New Mexico to continue an unusually generous program: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, made child care free through the summer of 2023 for many families earning less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $111,000 for a family of four.

The measure could also fund long-term wage increases for childcare workers.

Ivydel Natachu, 52, is one early childhood educator in Albuquerque who says she would benefit. She has 17 years of experience, earned $10.50 an hour until 2020. She raised her own children with the help of side jobs and food stamps.

With temporary federal stimulus funding supporting New Mexico’s child care centers, she now earns $15 an hour; if the constitutional amendment passes, it could increase her pay to $18 an hour.

Mrs. Natachu said that during the pandemic, she saw colleagues quit after just a few weeks on the job, lured away by easier, higher-paying jobs in other fields. She said that, given their expertise in child development, childcare workers should be paid like public school teachers.

“We are fighting for our professional wages,” she said.

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