The Child Care Crisis Spares No Southern State
By Elliot Haspel
It has been a particularly rough few years for parents with young children, as the COVID-19 pandemic induced school and child care closures. Now that schools and child care programs are largely reopened, parents face a knock-on crisis: a crippling staffing shortage that is shearing an already-scarce child care supply. This child care crisis impacts every Southern state, and philanthropy must act to address it.
The overall child care crisis is caused by structural failure in the economic model. Because America treats child care more like a restaurant than a social good like a public school or library, programs are dependent on parent fees. Yet unlike a restaurant, the fixed costs in child care are so high due to necessarily low child-to-adult ratios – so although the price tag is staggering, programs cannot charge parents the true cost of care. Programs respond to this market failure the only way they can: by cutting educator wages. In 2020, the median wage was slightly above $12 an hour.
This reality left the child care sector barely treading water before the pandemic, but in the face of major retail and fast food companies significantly raising their base compensation, child care programs cannot keep up. As a result, although the overall U.S. economy has recovered to within 2 percent of pre-pandemic staffing levels, the child care sector is languishing more than 12 percent below, a loss of over 100,000 jobs. This is not a pandemic artifact, but the new normal.
Southern states are struggling as much as anyone. A robust study of Louisiana child care programs over the summer of 2021 found that, “84% of site leaders reported asking staff to work more hours or take on additional roles to make up for staffing shortages. Three-quarters worried that staffing issues negatively affected children at their site. Almost half indicated that they served fewer children or turned away families due to staffing challenges, and nearly two-thirds indicated they currently had a waitlist.” The story is similar in Virginia, where “almost all leaders (92%) found staffing their site difficult” and over half reported “losing valuable teachers.”
This rampant turnover creates immense stress on educators and site directors (a workforce heavily made up of women of color). It also stands in opposition to healthy child development; children thrive on caregiver reliability and consistency. In the worst-case scenarios, programs must close permanently because they simply cannot remain staffed at a level that allows for sustainable operations. State data shows that, for instance, Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky has lost nearly 10 percent of its child care supply since the start of the pandemic.
The philanthropic response to the child care crisis must go beyond short-term support for programs. Because this is a structural failure requiring permanent public funding to fuel permanent compensation increases – and because child care is an area where states currently put in a tiny percentage of their budgets – the only solution that is not a Band-Aid lies in public policy and advocacy. Yet historically, philanthropy has shied away from providing the level and consistency of funding the child care sector needs to successfully advocate for change. Happily, this has begun to change, although much more is needed.
For example, consider the Raising Child Care Fund (RCCF), an affiliate of the national Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. RCCF is a pooled fund that exists to support “grassroots organizations working alongside families and early educators in centers and homes to build their power and move the child care system to promote racial, gender, and economic equity.” These organizations, often led by people of color, have long been forced to push for better child care policies on shoestring budgets. RCCF grantees in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana have been instrumental in the fight for better child care funding in those states.
Similarly, Child Care NEXT is a philanthropic initiative housed at the Alliance for Early Success. The concept is to provide a high level of continuous funding to states where grasstops and grassroots organizations have come together to fight for transformative north star policy goals. Both Louisiana and Virginia were selected as winners out of 36 state applicants and have been receiving peer learning and technical assistance opportunities in addition to funds.
Only philanthropic investments of this scale will move the needle. Hopefully, Southern philanthropic institutions will consider joining on to RCCF, Child Care NEXT, or finding opportunities within their own states to surge funding to the child care policy and advocacy ecosystem. The alternative is watching the child care sector continue to steadily crumble, taking with it the well-being of providers, families, state economies, and most importantly, children. It does not have to be this way, and philanthropy can help stand in the gap.
Elliot Haspel is a child care policy expert and the Program Officer for Education Policy & Research at the Robins Foundation in Richmond, Virginia. If your organization is interested in learning more about investing in transformative changes to child care, join the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative's March 31 webinar, Grassroots Early Childhood Organizers Making Headway in Tumultuous Times.