Child care should be deemed essential

Letter to the Editor 

More than 75% of a child’s brain develops in their first five years. A young child’s relationships with parents, family, and other significant adults in their lives—including child care providers and teachers—directly affect a child’s well-being and ability to learn in elementary school and beyond. 

This isn’t “news” to parents or child care providers or to economists who have studied the large returns for public and private investments in child care. What is astonishing is how little child care teachers and providers are paid considering the awesome responsibility and professional knowledge and skills required.

From the 1970s through today, the education and training qualifications for child care teachers have increased exponentially, and child care centers’ rates have skyrocketed by a whopping 2,000%. 

Yet, compensation for child care teachers and providers, overwhelmingly women and women of color, has barely inched up. The median hourly wage of a child care worker is less than that of a dog-walker. 

Child care centers struggled to recruit qualified staff and retain experienced staff well before the pandemic. For family child care providers, the long hours, responsibilities, and new licensing requirements created a “perfect storm.” 

Between 2006 and 2015, a quarter (27%) of licensed in-home providers closed their businesses, a loss of approximately 36,500 spaces. Recognition early on in the pandemic that child care is an essential service was a positive step for the child care system. 

In a groundbreaking first, Minnesota made significant investments to stabilize the supply of child care. The legislature and Governor Walz approved $597 million in new spending directly to child care programs. 

Child care providers turned on a dime to provide COVID safe care, which induced new, unexpected costs. Many providers also experienced sudden drastic drops in revenue from vacancies when more parents were allowed to work from home. 

The state’s COVID temporary grants sent directly to programs allowed them to cover the new costs for operating safely as well as to pay staff and general operating expenses. I talked with directors and family child care providers who told me the emergency child care grants were their lifeline to staying open. 

Minnesota’s public support for child care has historically prioritized the demand side with tax credits and fee subsidies to help low-wage working parents afford child care. 

Parents, including low-income families, can apply for tax credits, but they barely cover a month or two of child care expenses. Minnesota’s child care sliding fee subsidy for income-eligible families pays a portion of the providers’ fees based on the family’s size and income.

Long wait lists for child care sliding fee subsidies and the far-below-market rates the state pays providers attest that Minnesota still has a long way to go. We need to invest in both the supply and demand for child care to ensure that all families can choose dependable quality child care.    

The only way to “fix” our under-resourced private child care system is to deem the sector as essential and provide both demand and supply-side funding at the federal level. The amounts needed are big and the payoffs for investing in our country’s human infrastructure benefit all of us now and in the future. 

Nancy Johnson has 45 years of experience in the child care and education field. She has worked as a licensed family child care provider, center teacher, and served as director of the Child Care WORKS advocacy organization.