By Jennifer Fernandez

Financial help from a state subsidy allows Garner resident Alexandra Porter to send her 3-year-old daughter to child care.

“Without child care, I can’t work, I can’t pay my bills,” said Porter, who was part of a panel discussion Thursday on the connection between child care and the economy in North Carolina.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated issues in child care access, panel members said, with some regions more affected than others. 

Many child care sites that closed during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 have not reopened fully, according to a report released late last year based on a parent survey by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation Credit: Esi Grünhagen / Pixabay

It’s not just affordability. Many child care sites that closed during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 have not reopened fully, according to a report released late last year based on a parent survey by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, which hosted Thursday’s discussion. 

Low salaries kept people away from the child care industry before the pandemic, panel members said. And now job opportunities with better pay are luring child care workers away or keeping them from returning to the classroom.

Access to child care is important for parents too. Not having a place to send their children can prevent parents from advancing or keep them out of the workforce altogether. Women, especially low-income women, are disproportionately affected — giving up work and educational opportunities because they can’t afford child care, according to a report by Early Childhood Foundation about COVID-19’s effect on North Carolina families.

That contributes to widening income inequality and “stands in the way of economic prosperity for all of North Carolina,” according to the Early Childhood Foundation

Children can lose out, too, panel members said, because they don’t get the structured learning available at many child care centers.

As the money directed toward child care centers during the COVID-19 pandemic dries up, the industry needs to address the wage and tuition issues that are affecting access and affordability.

Stakeholders discussed all of these topics during Thursday’s online event and hope to address them through legislation and other avenues.

Lack of child care affects education, jobs

In October 2020, North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation surveyed 802 parents of young children from across North Carolina about child care and early childhood education access to gauge the pandemic’s effect.

Clive R. Belfield, a professor of economics at Queens College, City University of New York, used those responses in his report, “Early Education in the Time of COVID-19: An Economic Analysis for North Carolina.”

He found that of the parents surveyed, 31 percent had missed a class or training due to issues with child care during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, parents reported that child care issues led to one-fifth of them dropping out of college or training, Belfield wrote.

His report also noted that women with young children, especially women in low-income households, make up a large part of the economic system, and lack of affordable child care is likely disrupting their education and economic progress.

“It’s often education that loses out and has to take a back seat,” said J.B. Buxton, president of Durham Technical Community College

Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) said legislators are looking at bills to help with workforce issues, such as grants to stabilize wages. Other bills could help with access issues by streamlining the process to open a facility, she said.

Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Angier) said one of his goals for the General Assembly session that gets underway this week is pushing for using Medicaid funding to help people go to community college and pay for child care while they are in school. 

“We have not got a yes on that yet,” he said.

Belfield also found that rural areas were hit particularly hard as work and early childhood education deteriorated at the outset of the pandemic.

“These two phenomena reinforce each other,” he wrote. “It is hard to find work without child care; it is hard to afford child care without work.”

He also found that more than half of families with children in the state live in so-called “child care deserts,” which means they have less than one slot for every three children from birth to 5 years old.

Panelists agreed with Belfield, who wrote that child care access and a community’s economic well-being are linked. 

He even put a number on it: $3,870 per year until the child goes off to elementary school. 

Businesses lose $1,270 for each working parent they employ. “This burden comes from: reduced revenue; lower productivity that is not offset by lower wages; and extra hiring costs,” he wrote. He also calculated that taxpayers as a whole wind up paying $1,040 per working parent.

Alternative business models suggested

From January 2020 through March 2022, about 190 child care sites have been lost across the state, according to the N.C. Early Care and Learning dashboard maintained by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Enrollment has dropped by about 26,450 children during that time, data show, going from 243,135 enrollees to 216,684.

Crystal Morphis, founder and CEO of Creative Economic Development Consulting and Women’s Economic Development Network, suggested that child care managers look at alternative business models. She said there are lots of options that could be used for the child care industry beyond simply asking for tuition dollars from parents, and state subsidies paid for children of low income parents. She said such alternatives could include seeking out subsidies like those used for business incubators, community- owned co-op models and even franchises.

Cassandra  Brooks, owner/operator of Little Believers Academy in Garner, where Porter sends her daughter, said they have parents “who call daily” that need child care. However, she can’t provide it since they are short staffed.

“Child care is a public good,” Brooks said, “whether people see it or not.”

Child care and the economy

N.C. Early Childhood Foundation issued a report in November looking at the pandemic’s effect on child care access. Here’s a look at findings from “Child Care & Economic Recovery Across North Carolina During COVID-19”:

  • Continued economic recovery from COVID-19 will require sustained attention to child care affordability and availability for families, especially for mothers in low socioeconomic status households who have children under the age of 3. 
  • Women constitute the majority of part-time, low-wage workers for many N.C. communities and disproportionately serve as primary caregivers in the home. 
  • In N.C., child care enrollment was reduced by 40 percent across the state due to the pandemic, despite only 2 percent of open providers closing. Moreover, approximately 21 percent of N.C. child care providers were flagged as being at risk of closing by the end of 2021. 
  • About 400,000 working parents across N.C. are assumed to be constrained by child care needs, given that there are an estimated 610,000 children aged 0-5 years. For example, on average, families in North Carolina pay nearly 41 percent more for child care than for rent, and families with one infant and one toddler spend one third of their income on child care.
  • Families with children ages 3-5 years old were likely to have subsidized child care (about 40 percent) compared with families of infants or toddlers (about 20 percent).
  • Availability of child care was inconsistent across the state, with more than half of families with children in N.C. living in areas designated as “child care deserts,” with less than one slot for every three children aged 0-5 years.
  • While the majority of parents reported that centers make up the majority of programs their children attended, regardless of residence in the eight prosperity zones reviewed, the percent of children in home care across the state varied. 

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Jennifer Fernandez

Jennifer Fernandez (children’s health) is a freelance writer and editor based in Greensboro who has won awards in Ohio and North Carolina for her writing on education issues. She’s also covered courts,...

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