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The precarious state of American child care

Things are getting worse. Here’s what providers need now.

A child care provider looks down at a baby in a baby chair.
A caregiver looks after a baby at Dottie’s Family Child Care in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, on March 17.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Deborah Corley Marzett hasn’t missed a day of work since the pandemic started.

When supplies like toilet paper and paper towels were scarce, the family child care provider was up before dawn to stand in line at the store. When schools were closed and older children started to come to her for remote learning, she bought new tables and upgraded her internet so they could Zoom into their lessons. When Covid-19 brought new ventilation requirements, she enclosed her porch to build a safe place with plenty of airflow where kids could play.

But none of this came cheap. The internet alone costs $100 a month, Marzett told Vox. And getting financial help has been a constant struggle. When she went to apply for a PPP loan, just getting information from the bank was difficult. She did eventually receive a small business loan, but she’s afraid to touch the money: “I can’t afford to pay that loan back,” she said.

For in-home providers like her, “for every dime we make, it goes into supporting our homes,” Marzett said. “Our businesses are our homes.”

While Marzett has been able to stay open, the pressures of the pandemic — rising costs, coupled with falling enrollment as parents pull children out of care — have caused many businesses like hers to close down. In California, where Marzett lives, 2,160 child care providers have closed permanently since the pandemic began, a loss of about a third of all the spots for children in the state, Kim Kruckel, executive director of the California-based Child Care Law Center, told Vox. The same pattern is evident nationwide: An estimated 20,000 day care centers have shuttered across the country since the pandemic began.

For those that remain, help is on the horizon, with almost $40 billion set aside for child care in the recently passed American Rescue Plan. But that money will go through state governments, which still have to distribute the funds equitably and efficiently to hundreds of thousands of very small businesses that often lack bookkeepers or even bank accounts — and that have often been ill-served by government programs in the past.

In order to prevent more closures and help providers stretched to the limit by Covid-19, the money has to get out fast. “We don’t need it three, four, five months later,” Marzett said. “We need it now.”

A child care provider with a child, both wearing masks, beneath signs that say “Love.”
Family day care provider Deborah Corley Marzett.
Courtesy of Deborah Corley Marzett

The pandemic has shuttered thousands of child care programs and left others in crisis

For child care providers in the pandemic, the numbers are grim. In a December survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 81 percent of providers said they had lost enrollment over the past year, with an average decline of nearly a third. When Covid-19 began spreading around the country last spring, many child care programs closed temporarily, sometimes losing tuition money in the process. Even when they reopened, some families did not send their children back due to concern about the virus. Meanwhile, many parents — especially Black and Latinx women and parents in low-wage jobs — were laid off in the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and could no longer afford to pay for child care.

And while enrollment went down, costs went up — 91 percent reported additional expenses for cleaning supplies, and 73 percent said they paid more for PPE. While some states offered help with rent and mortgage payments and other costs, 42 percent of providers said they had taken on debt by putting program expenses on their personal credit cards.

That combination of less money coming in as children dropped out, and more money spent on the necessities of providing care during a pandemic, has stretched programs’ finances to the breaking point. While comprehensive nationwide data is still difficult to come by, somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of providers have likely closed their doors permanently, Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, told Vox.

For workers, that’s meant layoffs — 166,800 fewer people were working in child care in December 2020 than in December 2019, according to the Hechinger Report. That’s especially concerning given that many child care workers were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit, making an average of less than $11 an hour, and often using food stamps or other public assistance to make ends meet.

For families, especially parents looking for work again as local economies reopen, it means a lack of access to care. That’s especially true in America’s child care deserts — the many areas around the country where there are three or more kids for every available day care spot — and which are disproportionately located in low-income areas, as the Lily recently reported. As of 2018, 51 percent of Americans — and 58 percent of Latinx families, 60 percent of rural families, and 55 percent of low-income families — lived in a child care desert.

And those numbers have almost certainly grown in the pandemic, as programs in low-income areas have been disproportionately impacted by rising costs and falling enrollment. For example, while programs serving higher-income families could raise prices to cover costs, those serving lower-income communities couldn’t do the same, Malik said, because families in the area simply cannot afford to pay more. Meanwhile, higher levels of unemployment among low-income parents — especially Black and Latina women — coupled with high rates of Covid-19 in Black, Latinx, and other communities of color mean more families in those communities pulling their children out of child care. “There was really a perfect storm of conditions for child care to weather,” Malik said.

All of that means that those who already struggled to find child care before the pandemic could have an even harder time in the months ahead. “It’s going to be the folks who are always affected most when anything happens in this country” who are most harmed by child care shutdowns, Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University, told Vox. “The groups who are already the most marginalized are going to have the hardest time.”

The American Rescue Plan can help, but states have to work to reach those most in need

As dire as the situation is for many providers, there’s also a new source of hope: The American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden earlier this month, provides $39 billion for child care — $15 billion to expand the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant program, and $24 billion to create a new stabilization fund for providers.

It’s a crucial lifeline for an industry in crisis, advocates and experts say. “The child care industry and child care workforce has been crying out for these dollars for almost a year now,” Malik said. “It’s a really important first step for us to save many of these programs.”

But relief won’t happen overnight. For the money to get to providers, it will have to go through states, which will have broad latitude to decide how best to spend it. Some of it will come in the form of expanded subsidies for families to help them afford child care (which also helps providers that rely on subsidy payments to operate). And some of it will be direct grants to providers themselves to help with increased costs and declining enrollment caused by the pandemic.

But when the money starts going out, states will need to make sure it actually gets to the providers who need it most — and not just to the largest programs, or those whose owners are best able to deal with state bureaucracy. That process will be challenging because child care programs are often “teeny-tiny microbusinesses,” as Kruckel put it, with one or a handful of people doing everything from caring for children to keeping the books — and working long hours to do it. In the past, Covid-19 relief programs have failed to reach many of these businesses. The PPP loan application process, for example, “required tons of payroll recording documentation, projections for your past and future income,” Kruckel said. “These are just not practices that are required on a day-to-day basis for these little child care programs.”

By contrast, any applications for relief under the American Rescue Plan will need to be simple and straightforward, and translated into multiple languages, Kruckel said, because a large share of child care providers are immigrants who speak English as a second language. Those application processes will also be up to the states, some of which have struggled to provide information in multiple languages during the vaccine rollout.

It’s not enough for state governments to simply make the money available — they have to reach out and tell people about it. That has been a problem in the past. California, for example, took steps to help providers during the pandemic by paying out subsidies based on enrollment, not attendance — so that if a child was enrolled but not attending due to concerns about Covid-19, the program could still get money. But the agencies that manage the state’s child care funding didn’t always pass that information along to providers, Marzett said, meaning they didn’t get the funds they were entitled to.

When it comes to getting accurate information, “providers have to rely on providers,” Marzett said.

To ensure that those most in need actually get the money they’re entitled to, states will have to do targeted outreach. “Oftentimes the providers who are in communities of color, particularly low-income communities of color, are less connected, have less access to resources,” Meek said. “States are going to have to work extra hard to actually go to them first.”

That will mean working with community groups and other networks that are connected to providers on the ground, Meek said, “to make sure that this money is being distributed equitably, and not the way that money in America always gets distributed, with those on the margins getting the least and getting it last.”

The $39 billion in the American Rescue Plan is only the beginning. The country’s many child care deserts are a reminder that the system was broken long before Covid-19 hit, and advocates say fixing it will require federal investment every year, not just today. “We can never go back to a time where our federal government is not making a serious dollar allocation every year to child care,” Kruckel said.

On the campaign trail, Biden put forth a caregiving plan that would address some of the long-term issues with the system, boosting provider pay and creating a system of tax credits and subsidies to make care more affordable for families. The White House is reportedly putting together a legislative plan that could include some of these priorities. But such legislation is sure to face hurdles in Congress — and among an American public that historically has failed to value child care.

Still, the pandemic, having suddenly forced many parents into the role of full-time caregivers while also working full-time, has put a spotlight on the importance of child care providers and the work they do. And now, many say, it’s high time to pay attention to their perspectives.

“We are the ones in the field,” Marzett said. “In order to fix this broken system, you have to listen to the people in the field.”