National report warns crumbling child care industry will slow economic recovery in Washington state and beyond

National report warns crumbling child care industry will slow economic recovery in Washington state and beyond

Economic

Without child care, there can be no economic recovery from the pandemic.

Those are the dire consequences that can transpire if the government doesn’t give more financial assistance to U.S. child care providers, including those in Washington state, a new report warns.

Since July, nationwide, 40% of child care centers and 27% of home-based child care providers closed, according to research compiled by Child Care Aware of America, a national child care advocacy organization. The causes, Child Care Aware found, were dropping attendance in child care facilities and extra costs associated with the pandemic.

The group’s Washington chapter estimates 16% of the state’s 5,000-plus licensed child care providers were closed as of Sept. 21. With their closure went the combined capacity to serve more than 38,000 kids. Those figures are a slight improvement over late July numbers, when the state estimated that about 19% had been closed.

Without more economic aid during the pandemic, advocates argue, many of the newest closures could become permanent and more could follow, leaving scores of working parents with even fewer options for affordable child care. That’s especially true for this state, where the costs of child care are among the least affordable in the country, said the report’s authors.

Washington has 35 child care slots for infants, toddlers, or preschoolers for every 100 children aged 6 and younger whose parents work, according to the report.

In King County, where 273 centers were closed as of September, parents reported feeling “overwhelmed” as they searched for options and came up dry. Others, fearing that facilities’ indoor environments would spread the virus to their homes, unenrolled their kids.

Washington, along with many other states, has also adopted stricter health guidelines for how many kids can occupy a space at once. This increases staffing costs and, combined with falling enrollment, made an already bad problem even worse. With schools closed and teachers mostly teaching remotely, they’ve also had to take on more education responsibilities for older kids.

“People were barely pulling it off pre-pandemic,” said Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Aware in Washington state.

Child care centers had already been closing across the country, making some places “child care deserts.” More than half of states reported a decline in providers in last year’s report.

The losses are both developmental and economic. Early childhood learning, offered either at preschool or in playtime activities at many child care centers, has been linked to stronger academic outcomes for children, especially for kids of color.

Parents of children under three who could not find child care created about $57 billion in losses for the economy, according to a 2018 report commissioned by advocacy group Council for a Strong America and written authored by a City University of New York economics professor. Around $37 billion of that sum was linked to reduced productivity at work or time spent looking for jobs.

Child Care Aware researchers say they haven’t been able to pinpoint all the reasons for the pre-pandemic downward trend, but noted a few potential factors: child care workers tend to be older, and could be retiring at higher rates than they can be replaced. And as more states and local governments have begun funding universal Pre-K programs, private providers have lost some customers, making it hard to pay for the more higher costs of caring for infants and toddlers.

This year, Washington lawmakers increased investment in the state’s child care subsidy program, Working Connections, by $32 million. The state also plans to dedicate about $30 million more from its share of the federal CARES Act stimulus package. But advocates are pushing for more.

A family of four making $52,000 or less a year would qualify for a subsidy under Working Connections, a bar so low that it leaves out way too many families, said Puffert. The state’s median family income in 2020 for a family of four is nearly $98,000. The amount offered in the current subsidy is also restrictive, said Adam Holdorf, communications director at the nonprofit Children’s Alliance.

“If you called 100 child care centers seeking care for your child, 65 would have tuition rates equal to or less than Working Connection’s payment, and 35 would charge more,” said Holdorf.

There are some limits to the Child Care report. Researchers say there isn’t enough national centralized data on attendance, enrollment in child care programs, and and a good assessment of demand.

They also noted that the report doesn’t include information on child care availability for school-aged children, which school districts have struggled to provide. (Seattle Public Schools, for example, relies on existing child care providers and offers space in its school buildings.) The report primarily focused on care for kids up to five years old.