‘Essential’ but unfunded: Why child care is collapsing

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The New York Times recently ran an excellent and depressing opinion piece titled “Say Hello to That New Spin Studio and Goodbye to Your Child Care.” It articulates the perilous situation faced by parents, children and child care providers in the wake of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis.

Pete Nabozny

Parents who have been at home with their young children for months are looking forward to getting back to work. Unfortunately, they may come to realize that their child care program won’t be able to take their kids back. Children, whose lives have been disrupted by this crisis and thrive on stable relationships with caregivers, may not be able to return to a familiar care setting. 

As the article notes, child care, unlike K-12 education, is primarily funded in the United States through private payments from families to providers, with a relatively small share of low-income families receiving assistance to afford the cost of care. Our collective unwillingness to use public dollars to adequately fund care for young children creates a challenge in normal times, as child care is simultaneously extremely expensive for families, often unprofitable for business owners, and low-paying for child care workers. 

Still, hundreds of thousands of families receive quality care from regulated providers throughout New York every year, children build trusting relationships with their caregivers, and advocates such as The Children’s Agenda try to nudge government to make child care more affordable and accessible to families with young children. But the coronavirus crisis is a catastrophe for the child care sector, as the New York Times article makes clear. Thousands of small businesses—most owned by women, many owned by women of color—are poised to go under. Many more thousands of child care workers, again, disproportionately women of color, have lost their jobs.  

In New York, child care has been designated an “essential service” during the pandemic, under the logic that other essential workers would need care arrangements for their children. Despite that, approximately one-third of providers in the state have temporarily closed, and many others are operating with lower capacity. This is primarily due to a collapse in demand for child care throughout the state. Two million New Yorkers, many of them parents with young children, have lost their jobs over the past two months and no longer need or can afford child care. Others are doing their best to work from home while parenting, and are concerned about sending their children to a congregate setting during this public health crisis. 

In Monroe County, 27 percent of providers have temporarily closed, including 43 percent of child care centers, with at least one closure in 90 percent of the ZIP codes that overlap with the county. This data was provided by New York Office of Children and Family Services to The Children’s Agenda, and reflects the situation on May 18. 

Child care advocates have urged (to no avail so far, as of the date this is written) the federal government to allocate $50 billion  to support the child care sector during this crisis. National experts have forecasted that without that kind of investmenthalf of all child care programs  nationwide will be forced to close. New York is projected to lose nearly 180,000 regulated slots. 

But why? What makes child care especially fragile during this crisis?

As noted above, child care, unlike education, is primarily funded through private payments from families to providers. Lower enrollment therefore generates lower revenue. In addition, child care, like many industries, can operate successfully only at a certain scale or volume. Throughout nearly every week of this crisis, an increasing number of providers statewide have decided to close their doors, with hopes to reopen after the public health crisis abates.

At the same time, to limit the spread of COVID-19, OCFS has issued a number of directives and recommendations to child care programs operating in the state. These instructions, modeled off Centers for Disease Control guidelines, include new drop-off and pick-up routines, heightened cleaning expectations, a requirement that staff wear face coverings while caring for children, and a recommendation that child care providers limit group sizes to 10 or fewer  people per room, including staff. Reduced enrollment helps keep children, staff, and the broader community safe. But it also makes operating a child care center nearly impossible. Decreased enrollment, whether through reduced demand or public health guidance, dooms the entire business model.

Consider a hypothetical child care center called ABC-123 Child Care operating in a middle-class community in Monroe County. This small center has five classroom spaces serving a maximum of 64 children:

  • An infant room serving eight children ages 6 weeks to 18 months 
  • A toddler room serving 10 children ages 18 months to 3 years
  • A preschool room serving 14 3-year-olds
  • Two preschool rooms serving a total of 32 4-year-old children (16 in each room)

ABC-123 Child Care always attempts to maintain full enrollment, but like most programs, budgets at 85 percent capacity, and breaks even at that point. It charges families the OCFS-determined “market rate” for each age group, pays staff the Rochester region’s median wage  for child care workers, and can afford to offer only meager benefits. 

Under this scenario, it generates a bit over $700,000 in revenues per year. The table below shows capacity, the number of dedicated staff needed and total revenue by age group.

Age GroupPre-Covid CapacityClassroom StaffMandated adult:child ratioPre-COVID Annual Revenue
Infant821:4$99,008
Toddler1021:5$116,688
3 Year Old1421:7$151,606
4 Year Old3241:8$346,528
Total Capacity64Total Revenue $713,830

Let’s assume that ABC-123, faced with dramatically lower enrollment, decided to temporarily close when the coronavirus crisis struck, and is now attempting to reopen. To meet the classroom-size guidance issued by OCFS, and to do its part to support public health efforts, ABC-123 Child Care needs to significantly reduce capacity in most rooms. The table below details the capacity changes by age group. This program is attempting to maximize child/adult ratios while remaining under 10 people in a particular room.

Age GroupPre-Covid CapacityAdjusted CapacityChange
Infant880
Toddler108-2
3-Year-Old147-7
4-Year-Old3216-16
Total Capacity6439-25

After considering every other option, ABC-123 Child Care decides that it has no choice but to lay off the three classroom assistants in its 3-Year-Old and 4-Year-Old classrooms. Those rooms will now operate with one adult at all times. 

According to state Department of Labor data, child care workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the Finger Lakes region; on average, they make less than $25,000 per year. Still, when including fringe benefits, cutting these three staff saves the organization $88,000 per year. 

But this isn’t nearly enough savings. The table below shows revenue projections by classroom under this new scenario. 

Age GroupCOVID Adjusted CapacityCOVID Adjusted StaffCOVID Adjusted Annual Revenue
Infant82$99,008
Toddler82$93,350
3-Year-Old71$75,803
4-Year-Old162$173,264
Total Capacity39Total Revenue$441,425

ABC-123’s annual revenues have fallen by more than $272,000, and are now 62 percent of their pre-pandemic levels. The program needs to find another $184,457 in revenues or savings to break even. It can’t cut any additional classroom staff and most other costs (rent, utilities, a small administrative team, etc.) remain. 

The program’s leadership explores raising rates to cover the gap, and discovers that they’d need to raise weekly fees by a whopping 42 percent. 

Age GroupPre-COVID Weekly FeePre-COVID Annual FeeNew Weekly FeeNew Annual Fee
Infant$280$14,560$397 $20,644 
Toddler$264$13,728$374 $19,448 
3-Year-Old$245$12,740$347 $18,044 
4-Year-Old$245$12,740$347 $18,044 

The center’s leadership team cannot fathom increasing prices that much. How many of their families could possibly bear the cost of this fee increase? A family with an infant and a preschool-age child enrolled at ABC-123 would see its costs grow from an already unaffordable $27,300 to $38,700 a year. 

ABC-123’s ownership concludes that raising fees by that much on middle-class families is not a realistic option, but neither is finding more than $180,000 worth of cuts. Faced with the prospect of reopening but quickly going broke, they’re forced to make the decision to remain closed indefinitely. When their lease is up at the end of the summer, they decide not to renew, closing forever. Families who were relying on ABC-123 for child care scramble to make other arrangements, perhaps resulting in parents leaving the labor force. 

Now apply this scenario to the entire country. Not every program will be forced to close. Some serve affluent families who can afford to bear such shocking rate increases. Others operate multiple sites and might be able to find enough efficiencies to muddle through. And still others have diverse-enough program models (including Pre-K funding), cash reserves and/or access to credit to weather this period. But the typical business model of America’s child care sector, already frayed, cannot be sustained under these circumstances. 

The coronavirus crisis has devastated many sectors, from airlines and tourism to restaurants and museums. As those sectors try to recover and rebuild their operations, their workers will need child care. Two-thirds of New York’s children under 6 years old live in households where all available parents work. If New York’s child care capacity shrinks by half (as predicted), thousands of families will be left without care. Government’s long-term failure to appropriately fund child care, coupled with an apparent short-term unwillingness to sufficiently help child care providers weather this storm, will damage the prospects of economic recovery.

To date, New York has allocated only $30 million of the $164 million in discretionary funding it received from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and has yet to share a plan for what it will do with the remaining $134 million. The Children’s Agenda and other advocates around New York are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use the funds to enable child care programs to operate safely at reduced capacity, providing them with resources to retain staff and stay whole until the pandemic and its effects diminish—as has been done with the K-12 school system. Even that $134 million is wholly insufficient, though, supplying only approximately $8,000 per regulated provider in the state. More federal relief is necessary to ensure children receive safe and nurturing care, parents can return to work, and our economy can rebound.

Pete Nabozny is director of policy at The Children’s Agenda. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.

One thought on “‘Essential’ but unfunded: Why child care is collapsing

  1. Thanks for the clear presentation of the problem. We need to consider all the alternatives, including allowing a return to prior structure. I’m not putting my head in the sand–I’m looking at the fact that children are at low risk of infection and extremely low risk of serious complications. More children die of flu every year than have died of Covid; we don’t shut down schools and child care every winter for flu season. We shouldn’t treat children’s gatherings the same as nursing homes. (There is, however, the challenge of getting parents comfortable with a return to prior structure after the endless warnings to “Stay Home – Stay Safe.”)

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