President Joe Biden’s child care relief bill, part of the sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that the president signed into law Thursday, may not end the growing child care crisis, but it will throw a much-needed lifeline to a field on the brink of collapse, early childhood advocates say.
“Our early educator community has been desperately underfunded for decades. Even before the pandemic, most child care providers — particularly those in communities of color — lived below the poverty level, relying on government support and social service programs like Medicaid and food stamps to meet their family’s basic needs. Those inequalities have been magnified during COVID-19,” said Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a resource and referral agency.
“The passage of the Biden stimulus plan is a significant investment in our early education community, and one that we are grateful for. These funds will go a long way to helping many child care providers survive the current crisis.”
A key part of Biden’s early childhood package is a $39 billion bucket of money, including $24 billion earmarked to stabilize the child care industry. The funds would go toward helping providers pay for overhead, such as rent, utilities and payroll, as well as higher costs due to the pandemic, like personal protective equipment.
The relief bill also includes $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a federal program that helps low-income families pay for child care, a move that is considered critical to getting women back into the workforce in the wake of the pandemic, which has forced legions of mothers to give up their jobs to take care of their children.
“It’s an economic issue for our society as a whole and especially women,” said Alycia Hardy, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty advocacy group in Washington. “Women are often the default parent when it comes to having to leave the workforce to care for children.”
California, which has almost 3 million children under age 5, stands to receive about $3.8 billion in federal relief, according to estimates from the Center for Law and Social Policy. Child advocates cite the bill’s expanded child tax credits as central to helping battle child poverty.
The bill temporarily raises the child tax credit, from a maximum of $2,000 now to as much as $3,600 per child a year. The plan also makes the credit fully available to the poorest of families and pays out in monthly installments of $250 to $300, a huge boon for families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.
“Parents with young children — trapped at home without child care or viable schools — win big in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package. It goes way beyond stimulus, promising to electrify the vitality of America’s families,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “We expected our grandfatherly president to carefully tread a middle road. Instead, Biden’s stimulus plan offers the most progressive boost in aid to young families since the Great Society.”
Childhood advocates laud the bill for coming to the rescue of a field long in crisis, but also suggest it is a down payment toward a total overhaul of the child care system that’s long overdue.
“The funds for child care in this relief bill are a huge step forward. Child care providers were struggling financially before the pandemic and the situation has only gotten worse. More public funding for early care and education is essential, but how you spend it matters,” said Caitlin McLean, a senior research specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. “We need to stop treating early care and education as just a private service and expecting parents to foot the bill.”
The pandemic has upended the already overstressed child care sector. Child care providers are coping with a 47% bump in operating costs related to Covid-19, according to the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group.
Many child care centers have buckled under the economic pressure. The California Department of Social Services reports that 3,122 California child care providers have shut down permanently during the pandemic. And an estimated 166,000 jobs in the sector have also evaporated, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
Some child care providers have been struggling to stay afloat for so long that they had lost hope that relief would ever arrive.
“I’m disappointed at how long it’s taken to get help,” said Makinya Ward, administrator at Kids Konnect Preschool, which runs centers in San Mateo and Alameda counties. “It appears there’s going to be relief on the way, and I am grateful for it, but I’m certainly hoping it’s distributed equitably.”
Poverty has long dogged child care workers. The median annual salary for a child care worker is just $11.65 an hour in the United States, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
In fact, preschool teachers and child care workers earn 38% less than their colleagues in the K-8 system, which explains why 17% of early childhood educators live in poverty in California. K-8 teachers, by contrast, earn $32.80 an hour, according to the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index.
“The value that our culture and policies have placed on teaching and caring for young children reflects inaccurate and antiquated notions of what this work entails, and deep-seated biases about what is seen as women’s work,” McLean said. “You can’t help but think if the child care workforce looked different — if they weren’t almost entirely women, and many women of color — then we would have done something about this issue a long time ago, before the crisis became a crisis.”
Families are also under greater stress as it becomes harder to pay for child care. More than half of parents from low-income communities and 40% of parents of color said they are worried about money, in a recent survey of 600 California parents by the nonprofit research and advocacy organization Education Trust-West.
The financial strain families face has put basic needs at risk. More than a third of parents surveyed said they have skipped meals or had to cut back on food for their children as a result of the pandemic.
“Now more than ever, as we all know, there’s a lot of need, there’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of pain,” said Giannina Pérez, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy adviser for early childhood, “and we as a state have to step up and do all we can to support our families.”
While the funds for child care in this relief package are desperately needed, early childhood advocates believe that the field needs a complete overhaul. They hope this crisis will trigger a reform of the nation’s child care infrastructure involving a significant ongoing federal subsidy.
The bottom line, many say, is that early childhood care and education should function more like the K-12 system, with centralized funding and oversight. Advocates also call for relief measures such as the expanded child tax credit, to be made permanent.
“We need to treat early care and education like we do education for older children,” McLean said. “It should be funded as a public service, available to every child and every family who wants it, with appropriate compensation and working conditions for educators, regardless of what age children they’re teaching.”
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