COVID-19 is bringing plenty of issues to the forefront, highlighting existing disparities and systemic problems that some have always known are there. Child care is one of those issues.
As we move into the yellow here in PA—and folks across the nation start the slow process of reopening and returning to some sense of normalcy—child care is one barrier that might get in the way of that return. At Fourth Economy, we’ve been working within our home community of Pittsburgh and in other communities across the country to think about economic recovery and resiliency. “What about child care?” is a question oft-repeated. Without reliable, quality child care, a return to work is not possible for many workers, especially our most economically vulnerable.
Even before COVID-19, there were gaps in child care across the country. In the Pittsburgh region, there are almost 84,000 children under age 5 who are in need of child care. Yet child care “seats” in licensed facilities number just shy of 60,000.
The graph below explores the potential trajectory of child care capacity and need from before COVID-19 through January 2021.
By the fall, the child care gap could be even larger than it was pre-COVID, reaching unprecedented levels by January 2021. Without significant financial support, child care businesses will close, capacity will decline, and the gap in needed child care will grow.
The good news is that some of that support is—and has been—arriving, with CARES Act funds providing additional stimulus monies to providers, many state agencies continuing to distribute child care subsidies even while children aren’t currently being served, and local private and public entities supplementing providers’ needs. Hopefully, these efforts will ensure that we don’t lose 50% of our child care capacity, children will continue to have access to quality early childhood education, and parents can return to work.
Why do we force our child care providers to blend and braid funding sources in a complicated, uncertain dance, while we happily accept that K-12 public education is a publicly funded essential service?
But while we wait and hope, it might also be a good time to start asking some big, important questions: Why isn’t quality child care valued at the same level as quality K-12 education? Why do we pay our child care workers half of what we pay Kindergarten and elementary school teachers? Why do we force our child care providers to blend and braid funding sources in a complicated, uncertain dance, while we happily accept that K-12 public education is a publicly funded essential service? And while you’re asking yourself those questions, think about this, too: we’re not writing blog posts and having conversations about the threat of your neighborhood elementary school permanently closing due to lack of revenue.
Publicly funded early childhood education is a complicated, multi-faceted issue. But it is critical to ensuring that our babies (!) are cared for consistently and with quality, and that our parents are able to go to work. At a time when so much is in flux, it seems like the perfect opportunity to reexamine a system that is so broken and fight for some positive change.
Note on methodology: Child care “need” refers to children with all available parents in the workforce. Pennsylvania numbers for demand were calculated using data from PA Partnerships for Children, KIDS Count, and the 2014-2018 American Community Survey. Pennsylvania numbers related to child care capacity were calculated using data from the PA Department of Human Services.