In this blog, early childhood expert, advocate, and author Dr. Sarah Vanover outlines the current crisis childcare providers and families face in America today. As a system that is too critical to fail faces collapse, together, we can reimagine the childcare industry for all Americans whose livelihoods depend on it.
Childcare is the industry that supports all other industries. It prepares young children to be successful in elementary school, teaches children how to interact with others, and provides families with a safe place for their children while the adults work to support the family. Despite how essential childcare is to the American economy, it has always been a fragile industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light how vulnerable the nation's childcare programs are, but the problems started long before the challenges of the past year. Unfortunately, if the US cannot address these systemic problems with the field of childcare, then the entire economy could suffer.
Understanding the Importance of Childcare
First, childcare has a huge impact on the life of the working family. In order for the adults in the home to work, they must have reliable childcare, but there a many barriers that can prevent a family from accessing the type of childcare that they need. The largest obstacle is cost. The cost of an infant attending full-time childcare in a center is equivalent to a mortgage payment for many families, and if the family has more than one child in full-time care, then childcare is most likely the largest monthly expense.
Also, when a family goes looking for a childcare program, that program must meet the needs of the family. Most childcare programs operate between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM, so families in which the adults work nights and weekends might have a much more difficult time of securing childcare. The families also have to worry about childcare programs that frequently close due to weather or for extended breaks. If parents must frequently miss work to stay home with a child, it can have an impact on their jobs and their incomes.
Finally, the accessibility of childcare in the area where the family lives can be another obstacle. If there are significantly more young children living in an area than there is available childcare, then technically the family is living in a childcare desert. This may mean that the family has to drive a great distance to find childcare, or the family may find unregulated child care that may not have the necessary safety requirements in place.
The True Cost of Childcare
The childcare programs also must overcome significant obstacles to remain viable as businesses. The cost of childcare may seem insurmountable for families; however, the families' tuition is the only source of revenue that the childcare program typically collects. The tuition that each family provides must cover the cost of each childcare provider that cares for the children during the course of the day, as well as fixed expenses like the physical building and the meals for the children. At the end of each month, the child care program is lucky to have a zero balance; however, many programs continue to lose money even with the maximum enrollment allowed in the program. Some programs try to acquire extra revenue through fundraisers or grants, but there are few funding opportunities that help to pay general expenses.
With such a tight financial structure, most childcare programs can barely afford to pay their staff members more than minimum wage. Working in a childcare program is a labor-intensive job. A child care provider must constantly give his or her attention to every child in the room. The provider must plan lessons for the children and complete paperwork about the child's development. The center must keep detailed records in order to pass inspections. With a lengthy list of job requirements, it is difficult for programs to find staff members who are willing to work so hard with so little compensation. Therefore, many child care programs have a high staff turnover rate, which is not beneficial for the children or the administration.
A Call for Change
Since the current childcare structure has significant challenges for families and for programs, it is obvious that something needs to change. The industry cannot continue in this fashion. The early years of development are crucial for a child's future success. To give each child the best opportunity for success, they need qualified early childhood educators in the classroom to help them learn and develop. A qualified teacher cannot work for minimum wage, so the pay scale for early childhood educators must change. Since childcare programs cannot do this on their own, they need to find additional assistance. Additional state and federal funding for childcare is necessary, just like it is for the public school system.
Vulnerable families need additional access to childcare subsidy so that their children can enter kindergarten ready to learn. Also, parents and government agencies do not need to be the only ones involved in funding. The business community has a vested interest in quality childcare also. When an employee has reliable childcare, he or she is more likely to be at work as scheduled and to stay with the company for a longer period of time. If the business community supported its employees more with subsidized childcare, then employees would be more likely to stay with the company, reducing turnover and the need to train new staff members. It is also important that family child care homes are a part of the childcare industry, as well as center-based care. Family childcare homes often have the flexibility to offer care on nights and weekends, when centers would typically be closed. Home-based care is also more successful in rural communities, since families may be spread further apart, and centers cannot achieve full enrollment.
In order to survive, the childcare industry must change. It is essential for the US to support that change, because supporting childcare will support all areas of the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has given Americans the opportunity to think about the importance of childcare. Now, it is essential that we act on that knowledge in order to save an essential industry.
About the Author
Sarah Taylor Vanover, EdD, has been working in the field of early childhood for over twenty years. Dr. Vanover completed her doctoral research on what families look for when selecting childcare for their children. She is an active trainer in Kentucky and surrounding states, and she frequently speaks at conferences on topics like quality childcare indicators, language development in the early childhood classroom, and the importance of quality infant and toddler care in early childhood education. For the past several years, Dr. Vanover has focused her work and research on assessing quality early childhood programs for health and safety requirements and supporting school-readiness skills. She is currently the director of the Division of Child Care for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is an active member of several policy teams looking at ways to save the US child-care system, and is the author of America's Child-Care Crisis: Rethinking an Essential Business.