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September 29, 2023

Child Care at a Crossroads: Is there a solution?

Credit: WTOP News

The child care industry is struggling — and fewer and fewer people are getting into the field. But can something be done to reverse that trend?

After discussing the current situation with those in the industry, the answer seems to be ‘yes’, but that it comes with a cost — a cost that might be untenable in the current political climate.

The bottom line comes down to money. In 2021, a pandemic relief package included $24 billion in stabilization funds that states were then able to dole out to the child care industry. How that money got to providers varied from state to state, but it kept many of them afloat.

This Sunday, Oct. 1, that funding comes to an end.

When that happens, “we’re going to see what it looks like when we go back … to the way we were doing things before,” said Laura Weeldreyer, the executive director of the Maryland Family Network. “I think it’s going to be bad for everyone.”

Industry advocates like Weeldreyer and others are hoping the federal government will step in again.

Earlier this month, over 100 members of the House and Senate — all of them Democrats — introduced the Child Care Stabilization Act, which would provide $16 billion more for the child care industry in each of the next five years.

In the House, a number of D.C.-area lawmakers support the bill, including Maryland Reps. David Trone, Jamie Raskin and John Sarbanes. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also supported the act, as do Virginia Reps. Gerry Connolly, Bobby Scott, Jennifer Wexton and Jennifer McClellan.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have also signed on as sponsors.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw its support behind a plan called the Child Care Investment Act. Trone and McClellan are among the D.C.-area representatives sponsoring that bill, too.

If passed, that bill would expand three existing tax credits for businesses and parents. Introduced earlier this year, that bill has 12 total sponsors in the House so far — 11 Democrats total and 1 Republican, Oregon Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

“Your legislation would increase access to quality, affordable child care for working families by improving the availability of tax credits for both large and small businesses,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president, chief policy officer and head of strategic advocacy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

What happens if Congress doesn’t act?

But with Congress on the brink of a federal shutdown, and the disagreements primarily centered on federal spending, passage of either bill doesn’t seem imminent.

“We’re forgetting the bigger picture here. We are rearing the lives of young children. That’s our future,” said Cynthia Davis, a child care provider in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood. “If we don’t care for those who care for the future, then what does that have to say about us as individuals, as adults and as the Congress? The Congress has to step up and do their part.”

While most of the proposals so far have come from Democrats, Laura Valle Gutierrez, a fellow at the Century Foundation and the co-author of a report on the child care industry published earlier this year, said groups that traditionally align with Republicans are also starting to speak out on the issue.

“In every single state, people are talking about how important child care is. … The Florida Chamber of Commerce put out a report talking about how important child care is for their businesses,” Gutierrez said.

“So when we think of economic issues, child care is an economic issue. And we are hearing not just from parents and providers, but from businesses that that’s the case.”

She’s among those advocating for the passage of federal funding for child care, arguing that a stable funding stream will help replenish the number of child care providers.

“Affordable, safe and nurturing child care options should be available to every single family,” Gutierrez said. “If this cliff comes and Congress doesn’t do anything about it, it’s going to be really hard for families to actually have these options and have choice in the matter.”

And she warned that a failure to act will lead to “a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for those directly impacted, whether they’re providers (or) whether they’re parents.”

Looking to the future without federal support

Weeldreyer said that when regulated child care gets more expensive, working parents will be forced to turn to unlicensed and unregulated care.

“So make no mistake, their kids are going to be watched somewhere,” she said. “And when you have families who are forced into using unregulated care, that means people haven’t had background checks. People haven’t had training in first aid and CPR. People are not necessarily doing developmentally appropriate and healthy things with kids.

“I think it’s a really tricky balance to maintain that we somehow make it easier, and/or more attractive to be a child care provider, but do not relax quality standards,” she added. “These are our littlest people. And we’re talking about infants and toddlers who can’t speak up for themselves or tell their parents if things aren’t good in child care.”

She said if parents haven’t done so yet, they need to talk to their child care provider and find out what might change next week, next month or next year.

“I think the hardest thing on families is when there’s a sudden change in child care, and you’re expected to be at work today, and you don’t have anybody to watch your kids. That is so stressful,” Weeldreyer said.

She also recommends that parents in Maryland who are having issues with affordability look into Maryland’s Child Care Scholarship Program, though they would still need to find a program that’s enrolling children.

Davis said without more stabilization funding, she might be among those providers going out of business in the coming months.

“They have to do their part,” Davis said, referring to Congress. “They have to really step up and start seeing that … we’re the workforce behind the workforce.”