For three and a half years, the director of a Long Island childcare center has not taken home a paycheck. She has woken up early and stayed up late running the center, but to keep it open and keep paying her staff, she had to take herself entirely off the payroll.
Even so, the program has only lasted because members of the local community have contributed their own time, money, and energy painting the walls, fixing the boiler, paying for medicine, and more. As the director explains all this to me at her center, she pauses regularly to help care for the children that surround us.
I met her and visited her center during a ten-week childcare listening tour across New York State. On this tour, it quickly became clear that her story and the story of this center are not the exception, but the norm. The entire childcare industry is hanging on by a thread.
The Childcare Crisis
Decades of treating and funding childcare as a private service rather than vital public infrastructure has already forced many childcare programs to close, and parents are desperately struggling to find and afford the childcare they need. That’s why I worked with parents, childcare providers, and advocacy organizations throughout New York to introduce the Universal Child Care Act to the New York State Senate. This bill is designed to rapidly build up and expand on what remains of our childcare infrastructure to create a system in which childcare is free for all parents and childcare workers are paid fairly as educators.
The need for universal childcare did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has contributed to even more childcare centers going out of business, making the crisis more urgent than ever. One provider we visited had 142 applications this past year for just five open slots; another had 250 applications for just twenty-seven available slots. It’s common for parents to drive an hour to access a childcare provider. Waiting lists for remaining programs can be years long in some areas.
As one father from Central New York said during our listening tour:
As soon as we saw the line on the pregnancy test, I was like, “All right, we gotta get on every list possible, because we may not get childcare ten months from now.” Everyone was full — they were saying “I’m full for almost a year out.” So, we’re just gonna cross our fingers and pray at this point.
Where childcare is still available, it is largely due to a dramatically underpaid workforce overwhelmingly made up of women — especially black women and other women of color — who are so undercompensated that the majority live in poverty. 65 percent of childcare providers receive such low wages that they are eligible for social safety net programs such as food stamps or Medicaid. Increasingly, childcare workers are forced to leave the sector for jobs with more livable wages. It was common on our tour to hear of people leaving for higher-paying jobs at fast food chains and call centers.
Even with many who own and run childcare centers making little to no income, and staffers making less than a living wage, childcare is inherently expensive. It is no small task to educate, keep safe, and nurture our most vulnerable population, especially with landlords and insurance companies extracting a portion of the revenue. Childcare for an infant or toddler could cost a family over $2,600 a month or $21,000 annually — more than double the cost of college tuition at the City University of New York or State University of New York. Wraparound care or afterschool care adds to this cost substantially. Parents often have to pay over $1,000 a month to have access to care from 3 PM to 6 PM, to ensure their kids are safe from the time school ends until the end of their workday.
In some areas, especially in New York City, subsidies are available to some parents who can’t afford childcare. Unfortunately, there is a massive gap between the income level at which a family is eligible for these subsidies and the income it would take to actually pay the full cost of childcare. A member of the Child Care Council of Westchester told us that a Westchester family of four where two parents each work forty hours per week for minimum wage ($14/hour) will not qualify for subsidies, and center-based care will effectively cost 55.4 percent of their income.
If this were the only issue with the subsidies, simply raising the income threshold might be enough. But after touring New York talking to parents and childcare providers, it is abundantly clear that the entire system of assigning subsidies based on income (known as “means testing”) is fundamentally flawed.
The Hidden Harm of Means Testing
We heard story after story on this tour of parents who struggled for months trying to find their way through a dehumanizing maze of paperwork that failed to account for the realities of their lives.
For one thing, the incomes of working-class families often fluctuate dramatically. One week, a home health aide or a construction worker might be required to work overtime all seven days, and the next week they might be assigned no hours at all. This has been an especially troubling issue for essential workers, some of whom were forced to work overtime shifts because of the pandemic and lost their childcare subsidies because of the temporary extra income.
And then there’s the sheer amount of time and energy it takes to get through the means-testing process. One parent explained that she applied in January but didn’t get a determination for months, then was forced to repeat the process all over again. After additional paperwork was rejected because her employer didn’t sign it in the right spot, this parent gave up on the process nearly a year in. Countless other parents shared similar stories during our tour, and many of them had not ended up with childcare either.
We also heard from parents who had to turn down job offers because they couldn’t make it through this process in time to get childcare before their start date. And we heard from parents spending extra time because of mistakes made by the overwhelmed agencies administering these subsidies. Those with language barriers or disabilities face an even harder time making it through this process, and undocumented families are unable to receive these subsidies no matter how low their incomes are.
While in theory this system exists to direct aid to those who need it most, in reality it places the highest burdens on those very same families, and all too often leaves them without access to childcare. Fortunately, our public schools provide excellent evidence that requiring parents to continuously prove that they fall into a particular income range is entirely unnecessary.
By having the wealthy pay for childcare through their taxes, we can create a simple and efficient system in which childcare is free at the point of service to anyone who needs it — in other words, a universal system.
Winning Universal Childcare
The Universal Child Care Act is designed to create exactly that, by investing in rapidly rebuilding the childcare sector, raising subsidy payments along with worker wages, and eliminating parent co-payments. With nearly twenty sponsors in the New York State Senate already, and the same bill introduced in the assembly, winning universal childcare is a very real possibility.
Doing so will not be easy, but nothing less will not stop this crisis. Band-aid grants and technocratic tweaks to a wildly underfunded, overly convoluted system cannot keep the industry on life support much longer. We need to build universal childcare, in New York and throughout the country, and we need to do it fast.