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Uncertain future for providers as child care crisis looms

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Uncertain future for providers as child care crisis looms

Sep 27, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Whitney Downard
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Uncertain future for providers as child care crisis looms
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Some child care providers across the country could close in the coming weeks as funds dry up, impacting thousands of Hoosiers. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

As the director of Bridges Transition Childcare in Evansville, Vanessa Quarles wears many hats. 

She writes the grants, coordinates training to comply with those grants, pays the bills, purchases curricular materials, covers for sick employees and hires personnel — the latter of which includes Facebook ads, distributing fliers and visiting local colleges to recruit applicants.

State lawmakers weigh ongoing child care ‘deserts’ across Indiana

“It’s been a struggle getting workers in here; it’s been a struggle for parents to afford child care,” Quarles told the Indiana Capital Chronicle while simultaneously soothing a fussy child. “I’m not really sure how long I can keep it up.”

Quarles isn’t alone. One national think tank estimates that 3.2 million children may lose their child care as federal grant funding expires at the end of the month. Those dollars helped many centers keep their doors open during the economic tumult of the pandemic but Congress’ stalemate on spending might mean it’s too late for some providers.

“That (funding) helped stabilize the child care program to an extent and it made it possible for these programs to stay open,” Ailen Arreaza, the executive director of ParentsTogether, said. “But it was sort of like a Band-Aid on a big, open wound. And now that Band-Aid has been taken away.”

The stakes

Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimates that 70,000 child care programs nationwide would be impacted, roughly one-third of all the country’s providers. The organization predicts that nearly 49,000 Hoosier children will lose child care and just over 1,000 programs will close — triggering a $132 million loss in worker productivity and $120 million in lost wages for parents.

Hoosiers families pay more for infant and toddler care than they do for full-time, in-state college students. While the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year public universities hovers just under $10,000, care for a toddler sits at $10,315 while infant care costs $11,544 — a 3.5% and 16.2% difference, respectively.

Source: 2021 Child Care Affordability Analysis from ChildCare Aware of America

A 2023 survey from Arreaza’s organization found that 59% of parents reported cutting back on hours or leaving a job because they couldn’t find reliable, affordable child care. After losing that source of income, families often cut back on other expenses. Forty-four percent of families said they reduced food costs and over half, 55%, said they couldn’t save while shouldering the cost of child care, which rivals the cost of full-time, in-state college tuition in Indiana and elsewhere.

“The child care system in our country has … been broken for a very long time; it needs a complete overhaul,” Arreaza said. “We hear over and over again how expensive child care is, how hard it is to find good, affordable child care — and that was happening even before the pandemic.”

Programs implemented during the pandemic helped, Arreaza said. She noted that child poverty plummeted during the pandemic only to rebound once the tax credits expired. Now, child care centers are feeling the crunch as grant dollars disappear.

“We were able to see, a little bit, how when we do invest in families, the kind of difference that it makes,” Arreaza said. “There are solutions that exist — that we have implemented — but we keep removing them and it keeps hurting kids and families.”

A look at Evansville

Grants allowed Quarles to expand during the pandemic, adding a registered ministry in March on the northside of Evansville to complement her licensed home center on the southside. Some fellow providers who received stabilization grants are now closing their doors. 

“I couldn’t keep accepting overflow (children from closing centers) because I don’t have the employees … if I can’t keep these doors open, a lot of parents just lose their child care and they can’t work,” Quarles said. “They have to either stay home or work from home. Maybe talk to their employers to try to figure it out.”

With COVID-19 infections rising again, Quarles said she had to shut down a classroom for a week while an employee recovered from home. One mother told Quarles she didn’t have anywhere else to take her child because her parents lived two hours away and she’d already used all of her days off to cover previous child care lapses. 

Quarles’ primary hurdle is staffing. If she had more teachers, her northside location could more than triple its current capacity from 20 children to 62. She could expand her hours to match parents’ work schedules, which may not conform to the traditional 9-5 workday. 

But paying for and training more staff means increasing prices on her already strained parents. 

I’m doing everything I can to keep the doors open for the families I have.

– Vanessa Quarles, Evansville child care provider

“I’m not paying minimum wage but I also can’t afford to pay top dollar,” Quarles said. 

New teachers cost money to certify and often don’t stay long in an industry known for its stagnant wages. She said having the state pre-certify employees and find a pool of qualified candidates would be the biggest help to keeping her afloat.

To keep costs down, Quarles stopped offering lunches earlier this year and told parents to bring food from home instead — though she still provides breakfast and snacks.

Those savings allowed her to pay for the monthly curriculum subscription, which is necessary to qualify for other state grants.

The closures that Quarles sees in Evansville aren’t unique, and Arreaza worries that families aren’t aware of how close to the brink their own providers might be.

“It’s going to be a gradual process, but we’re going to start seeing child care centers closing after Sept. 30 when these funds expire,” Arreaza said. “I think a lot of families are not prepared for this. This is something that is going to come as a shock to them and they’re going to have to scramble and figure out what to do when their child care is not available.”

Scrambling for solutions

Arreaza, who advocates for parents on a national level, said it doesn’t have to be this way. Similarly advanced democracies don’t have the same qualms about investing in child care — Denmark, for example, guarantees a spot for each toddler just like the United States does for school-aged children. 

“Here in the U.S. it sounds magical, but it’s something that many, many countries across the world have. It just means that countries spend and invest in families … and we can do that too,” Arreaza said. “It’s not hard; the solutions are there. We just need to prioritize it.

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“Unfortunately, here in this country, we don’t prioritize kids and families.”

For now, Quarles holds out hope that she’ll soon qualify to accept vouchers from the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) at her second location, a program which pays for a portion of a family’s child care costs. In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers expanded the number of families who qualify for the funding but didn’t allocate more dollars to the fund.

Right now, Quarles said she charges between $700 and $925 per month for each child. A family with two children could be paying $1,400 monthly for care — essentially a mortgage payment, Quarles said. 

Without help, she still might need to increase prices to continue providing care for families.

“It really needs to be as soon as possible. I’m doing everything I can to keep the doors open for the families I have,” Quarles said.