WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Thursday will release nearly $40 billion of the administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package to confront what President Joe Biden has called an “acute, immediate child care crisis,” distributing money to help providers pay their rent and rehire workers made jobless by the pandemic, as well as make child care more affordable for low-income families.
The U.S. child care sector has collapsed under the confines of the coronavirus pandemic, shuttering thousands of day care centers depleted by low enrollment and overwhelmed by COVID-19 sanitation costs. Parents, often women, who could no longer afford child care, were forced leave their jobs and shoulder the burden at home. The closures have been especially stark for women of color, who predominantly make up the child care workforce.
“It’s a core part of making our economy work. It’s important to small businesses, to ensuring we don’t have job losses in the short-term and in the long-term child care jobs are good paying jobs,” Carmel Martin, White House deputy domestic policy adviser for upward mobility, told USA TODAY.
“It’s important from the perspective of parents, and their ability to live happy lives, but also go to work without worrying about children and the critical component of child development.”
But as more Americans return to work and schools begin to reopen, advocates say the child care industry is being left behind. Among the child care centers that have remained open, 81% say they lost enrollment over the past year, according to a survey of more than 6,000 providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
For some educators like Lori Lorenz, owner and director of Little Explorers Preschool in Fishers, Indiana, the fallout has been devastating.
“I never experienced the challenge we’ve had this year — it’s just been so hard… I’m so concerned that I’m not keeping everyone here as healthy as I need to… I have some kids who have autoimmune deficiencies, and I have to think about that, and it’s just a lot,” she told USA TODAY through tears.
“We’re honestly probably one of the hardest working professions that there is. And we do it because we love it. Obviously, it doesn’t pay anything — we don’t make anything. It’s truly because we love kids and we love teaching. But it’s just tough when you don’t feel like you’re being valued for what you do,” she added.
The money will be distributed through two funds, including $24 billion to help hard-hit child care providers pay their rent or mortgage, invest in COVID-19 safety protocols like purchasing personal protection equipment and improving ventilation as well as rehiring workers who have been laid off and providing mental health services for educators and children, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.
The administration plans to provide another $15 billion to expand the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant, the federal program that helps low-income families pay for child care, giving states more latitude in making child care tuition more affordable and increasing compensation for early childhood workers.
Vice President Kamala Harris will announce plans to distribute funding to states, territories and tribes in remarks Thursday afternoon at White House.
Though an exact count of center closures is unclear, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 166,900 fewer people were working in child care in December 2020 than were in those jobs during the same month in 2019, when the industry employed about 1,040,400 people.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families will release the money to states, which will be responsible for dispersing dollars to thousands of child care providers, many of which are small businesses overwhelmingly owned by people of color often operating on razor-thin margins. The White House estimates the stabilization grants ensure up to 450,000 child care providers, serving 7 million children, will be able to stay afloat.
Laura McSorley, director for early childhood policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said states need to act with the same urgency as the federal government by distributing dollars equitably and in a timely manner to providers and families in need.
“There is real devastation on what are ultimately tiny businesses and solo entrepreneurs who were never in a position to have strong margins, but also for families and their young children who are in desperate need of relief,” she said.
Martin said HHS will require states to report the steps they’re taking to ensure there’s equitable access to dollars, including reaching out to smaller providers, offering materials in multiple languages and possibly reserving funding to make sure providers who take longer to apply still have money available to them. The administration plans to provide webinars, peer-to-peer training and other guidance to help states determine how to distribute funding in the coming weeks.
A devastating toll on child care
But advocates say the pandemic has only laid bare the deep cracks that existed within the child care industry before COVID-19. Though some providers receive public funding, most rely on tuition, placing a high burden on families to pay the price of care. Before the pandemic, only 1 in 6 children eligible for child-care assistance received it, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found in 2019.
A 2018 analysis by the Center for American Progress found half of all Americans with young children lived in a so-called child care desert, or area that lacked licensed child care providers.
Child care workers earn an average of $11.65 an hour, often without health insurance or paid family leave.
“The system wasn’t working well before the pandemic and child care was really out of reach for many families — either financially or physically,” McSorley said.
An estimated 1 million mothers with a child aged 17 or younger at home left the work force between fall 2019 and fall 2020, compared to half a million men who left during the same time frame, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Angela Lampkin, school director for Start Early’s Educare Chicago school, said the funding will help to relieve the burdens on women of color. Ninety-three percent of child care workers are women and 45% are Black, Latino or Asian, according to BLS data.
“Many of the things that (child-care workers are) asked to do is really on the backs of … women, especially women of color, who aren’t making fair wages themselves,” said Lampkin, a Black woman.
“Those women have had to balance being at work and what’s happening in their own home, sometimes juggling between their own children having to do virtual learning and still coming out the house every day to support others, people’s children to grow, develop and be safe in a pandemic so that their parents can go to work each day.”
Half of providers remained closed in July, despite funding from small business loans and stimulus packages passed by Congress, according to the Child Care Aware of America, a research and advocacy group. That number dropped to 13% by December 2020, but NAEYC found that 2 in 5 providers reported taking on debt, including using personal credit cards or reducing costs through layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.
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The money is an additional boost to $10 billion funneled to states, territories and tribes under the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in December and $3.5 billion approved for child care in the CARES Act last March.
Relief funds are intended to be a starting point
Martin acknowledged the funding is aimed at providing immediate relief but signaled the administration has more plans to address larger gaps in the child care industry.”The funding we’re putting out today is designed to address the immediate crisis, but the president has a very robust agenda around the caregiving economy and building a sector that’s more resilient and can provider greater peace of mind to families, and also advance our goals in terms of early childhood development and childhood well-being,” Martin said.
Biden’s latest legislative push on infrastructure includes $25 billion to the upgrade and cover construction of child care facilities. The president is expected to unveil the second half of his $4 trillion package, focusing on “human infrastructure,” in the coming weeks. That package is expected to include funding for universal pre-K and lowering the cost of child care for families.
“This is really a critical first step, a down-payment towards the president’s long term commitments on the campaign to build a more equitable early childhood system for children, families and educators,” McSorley said.
Texas is set to receive the most funding with $4.4 billion, California will receive $3.7 billion, Florida will get $2.4 billion while New York will see $1.8 billion in child care funding, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House. Funding is distributed based on share of children under age 5, children receiving free and reduced price lunches and state per capita income.
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Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America, said while $39 billion injection will help stabilize the industry, the Biden administration has an opportunity to transform the child care system with more funding through the president’s infrastructure proposal.
“Child care is just as important as roads and bridges. It enables parents to work and keeps our economy moving,” Cardona said. “As the Biden Administration releases their next plan, to support ‘human infrastructure’ or the ‘caregiving economy,’ we will be looking for significant increased investment in child care.”
More: Roads, bridges … and caregivers? Why Biden is pushing a ‘radical shift’ to redefine infrastructure
Contributing: Alia Wong