At the end of last month, billions of dollars in pandemic-era government funding for child care centers expired, leaving experts concerned over access to early learning for children, employment for child care workers and resources for working parents — an issue known as the “child care cliff.”
The Child Care Stabilization Program, part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, provided $24 billion in aid to child care providers. This not only helped sustain child care centers — many of which are small businesses — but also ensured employment opportunities for child care workers, offered early learning opportunities for children and enabled parents to trust reliable access to child care, thus allowing them to stay in the workforce. According to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), around 90% of recipients of these stabilization funds reported it was instrumental in keeping their child care programs operational. Without these funds, the 220,000 families relying on these child care facilities may be left without access to this crucial service.
The Child Care Stabilization Program expired Sept. 30, creating concern among experts and child care workers alike over potential repercussions of this loss of support, with 75% of respondents to the NAEYC survey stating the loss of stabilization funds will have a negative impact on their programs.
According to William Franko, an associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies at the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, “Child care employment crashed during the pandemic and has struggled to recover … [The expiration of stabilization funds] will lead to thousands of child care center closures and millions of children without care. West Virginia is expected to lose half of its licensed centers if additional funding isn’t provided.”
The systemic problem, according to Franko, is the underfunding and limited accessibility of child care in the United States. Unlike K-12 education, child care is not considered a public good, and is largely privatized. Additionally, it is more expensive in the United States than in many other advanced countries, some of which already offer public funding for child care.
According to the Department of Labor, Monongalia County residents pay around $10,000 annually for center-based infant, toddler, preschool and school-age child care. Given that the median household income in Monongalia County was around $56,000 in the 2021 census, this poses a difficult decision for many parents, who must choose between staying home or working and paying a substantial part of their income in child care costs.
“The underlying problem with the child care industry is that it is underfunded. Rather than treating child care as a public good, like we treat K-12 education, child care in the U.S. is more expensive than in any other advanced country in the world,” said Franko. “This leaves many working families with difficult choices about whether to stay out of the workforce or to pay up to half of their income toward child care services.”
Some families may lose the option of child care completely. Throughout the many rural areas of West Virginia, there may be a limited number of child care centers within accessible distance to many families’ homes or places of work. If these few centers close due to funding issues, this further limits the options available to working parents.
“I am concerned about rural areas, including many places in West Virginia,” said Melissa Sherfinski, associate professor of early childhood and elementary education, WVU College of Applied Human Sciences. “These can be ‘child care deserts’ with only one child care center in commuting distance. If that center closes, there may be no viable options for local families. The effects of closures in rural communities may be particularly dire because families could be forced to move to places with child care opportunities, while businesses may be forced to move to places where full-time workers are available.”
This funding crisis isn’t expected to impact only parents or child care centers, but also the children. With disruptions to children’s early educational experiences during a developmentally crucial time in their life, concerns arise over long-term impacts on parents and children alike.
“While young children are resilient, they thrive with continuity of care across environments. They need smooth transitions. The child care cliff has positioned millions of children in the U.S. to experience disruption with potentially negative effects on their behavior and learning,” said Sherfinski.
This “child care cliff” is not an issue without hope for a solution, however. WVU experts suggest treating child care as a public good, much like K-12 education, by providing it with permanent funding — a method which proved effective with the Child Care Stabilization Program.
“The solution is relatively straightforward. The industry needs a permanent source of public funding,” said Franko, noting the Child Care for Working Families Act, legislation introduced in April would lower child care costs and support child care centers.