We need to invest in child care for the good of our children and our economy

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff 

Victory Riedy, founder of Victory Child Care, left, rented space in a Guilderland school in 2016 when the district had unused classrooms; it no longer has extra space.

Each year, as the state budget deadline looms, there is always a reckoning. A budget, whether at the local, state, or national level, is a document that shows what society values.

Often, there are trade-offs as various groups are passionate about what they value while funds are finite.

We value child care. We believe giving children the best possible start in life is the surest path to a bright future.

But robust child-care programs affect more than children and their families. Adequate child care would fuel our economy since a large segment of our potential workforce can’t work outside the home without good child care.

We can see the inadequacies locally in just one small example. A statewide initiative to provide universal pre-kindergarten classes saw the Guilderland schools get a large and unexpected sum of money. The problem, though, was, since the district couldn’t house the program itself, it had to look for outside providers.

There simply aren’t enough slots available for the families of all the children that would like to use them. So a lottery is held each year.

Guilderland school leaders have correctly said it would be better if economic needs were factored into the selection but, so far, the state hasn’t seen the wisdom of that. So children of wealthy parents, who would get schooled anyway, may use slots that will keep children from poor families from getting the schooling they sorely need.

The solution, of course, would be to make the program live up to its name: Universal Pre-Kindergarten, with an emphasis on universal.

A Cornell University report “The Status of Child Care in New York State,” released this month makes it clear that our state is in the midst of a child-care crisis.

Adults in nearly half the households are kept from working because of unmet child-care needs.

At the same time, a whopping 79 percent of New Yorkers would support publicly funding universal child care — and this support is bipartisan.

Those two data points, taken together, illustrate a clear path to solving the child-care crisis: The public is willing to pay to meet child-care needs, which would unleash a tide of new workers. The crisis of course won’t be solved in one budget cycle, but we need to start heading in the right direction.

Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab found that the influx of state funding during the pandemic helped stabilize child care but there have since been “meaningful losses in many areas across the state, particularly in upstate counties and low-income communities, where child care deserts and near- deserts already existed.”

The report maps the state, county by county, on the stability of capacity for child care. Albany County is colored pink, meaning it has suffered a loss of child-care slots in the last two years.

Despite minor upticks in the aggregate number of child-care providers licensed by the state, the report concludes, the availability overall has not improved and has even worsened in many areas of the state; the hardest hit areas are typically the poorest.

Part of the problem is that child-care workers remain undervalued and underpaid. The vast bulk of them are women.

“In New York State, there are 69,109 child care workers … Ninety-four percent of child care workers in New York State are female, suggesting strongly disproportional outcomes based on historical marginalization of women in the United States,” says the report.

“To me, it’s not that people don’t want to work,” said one of the workers interviewed by the researchers about the shortage of child-care workers. “They don’t want to work for nothing. You know, they need to care for their own children.” 

Child-care workers earn a median wage of $32,900, which is 39-percent less on a yearly basis than the median wage of all New York workers, at $54,300. Twelve percent of child-care workers in New York state fall below the poverty line. 

The lack of child-care workers creates a chicken-and-egg situation: Because workers are undervalued, there are too few. This, in turn, leads to New Yorkers, particularly women, who cannot work outside the home because they can’t find child care or can’t afford it.

Cornell University’s 2023 Empire State Poll found that more than two out of five respondents indicated that they or an adult member of their household decided to forgo employment outside of their home due to child care.

In a follow-up question, asking why these respondents turned down paid employment outside the home, more than half (53 percent) said that the biggest reason for their decision was the high cost of child care. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) said that their biggest obstacle to employment was lack of accessible child care in their area.

The remaining 24 percent said that the decision was linked to their personal child-rearing preferences (18 percent) or some other reason (6 percent).

Cornell researchers found that investing $1 billion into New York state’s child care industry would give rise to roughly 20,304 new jobs — the seventh highest job creation rate out of 372 industries (98th percentile) in all of New York state.

Our governor, Kathy Hochul, has been sending mixed messages, the report notes, on child-care policies. Last summer, Hochul and Micron Technology announced a plan to create child care services for the 50,000 new employees projected for their semiconductor plant.

This is a wise move — to have places of work provide care for workers’ children and we commend Albany County for adopting a similar approach at the county’s nursing home, providing daycare for workers’ children. Elder care, like child care, is another industry where the workers are predominantly women and are undervalued as well as underpaid.

Last December, Hochul announced a $100 million program purportedly to address the shortage of child care in the state, which included $50 million in capital grants to developers seeking to build child-care home- and center-based programs, as well as $50 million in tax credits to business owners to expand access to child care services for employees.

Again, this was heading in the right direction.

But then, after both houses passed the Decoupling Bill, with bipartisan support, Hochul vetoed it. Currently, a New Yorker who qualifies for child-care help can use the subsidy only for the hours they are working, restricting access for parents who work non-traditional hours.

Both the Senate and the Assembly, in their one-house budget, have allocated funds to support higher reimbursement rates for child-care programs offering care during nontraditional hours, such as nights and weekends, which would especially benefit working-class families.

Hochul’s budget proposal seeks to expand two major programs, Employer-Supported Child Care and the Business Navigator Programs, which would centralize data on licensed providers.

The Cornell study found that even the smallest public investment into child care pays large dividends.

Looking just at Erie County, where Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab did its research, of those who received child-care subsidies, 90 percent were either able to enter the paid workforce, remain in the paid workforce, or some combination of these circumstances, because of the subsidy. 

“The clear takeaway,” says the report, “is that public investments into quality, affordable child care spur additional economic activity through ushering parents and guardians into the labor force.”

A $10 million investment into Erie County’s child care sector is expected to create roughly 190 jobs and produce $17.7 million in total economic activity, the report says.

The report cites a model used in Washington, D.C. called the The Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund, started in 2022. Its primary aim is to achieve pay parity between educators in licensed child-care facilities and D.C. public schools.

“The creators of the DC model noted that many states, such as New York, boosted wages for early childhood educators,” the report says, “but noted that the models were in response to the COVID pandemic, and were temporary in nature.”

The D.C. model is designed to be permanent, funded through a tax on D.C.’s highest earners, those making more than $250,000 a year.

The Cornell report cites a study, stating the D.C. model “is meeting its goals of improving staff recruitment and retention and is improving the quality of care provided in the District of Columbia.”

We urge New York to move in the same direction. It may even stem the tide of residents leaving the state.

The Cornell report has this as its bottom line: Investing in child care is popular, good politics, and good for the economy.

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