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Childcare crucial to economic strength but it’s in short supply

There is a childcare shortage in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

The COVID pandemic caused childcare centers to shutter, many permanently.

The extra unemployment benefits kept some caregivers from returning to work.

Wages for childcare workers are low, pushing many to change careers.

All of this is causing an economic squeeze on businesses here and across the country as workers who can’t find childcare stay home with their children.

So what can be done?

According to Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children, the childcare shortage is nothing new. The pandemic, she said, made the situation worse.

“Wages are so low (for caretakers and teachers) that it drives people out,” she said. The average rate is $10.69 per hour. Many of the teachers have bachelor’s degrees and with the fast-food stores and big box chains offering higher wages, many teachers opt to change careers, she said. “People have to provide for their families and put food on the table.”

Last month, the Greater Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce surveyed members asking what data they’d like to see. “Most asked about childcare,” said Ryan Unger, president of the chamber. “They want to know what they can do to alleviate the problem and remove the barrier to employment.”

Unger said since the pandemic began, 860 childcare centers in the greater Harrisburg region have closed permanently. “This is causing a significant challenge for workers to return to the workforce,” he said. “It will take multiple solutions like increased capacity, assistance to facilities to acquire staff and family-friendly policies from employers to deal with the challenges.”

“Pennsylvania’s economy, its families, and its future depend on a strong child care and early childhood education system. Very simply, without access to safe child care and early learning programs, many parents cannot work. A thriving child care industry is foundational to the rest of our economy, and this industry and the dedicated educators who show up every day to help our children grow are essential for our recovery from this pandemic,” said Erin James, press secretary for the state Department of Human Services.

There is no question that COVID-19 has affected Pennsylvania’s demand for child care. Early in the pandemic, many families lost jobs and wages, which manifested as a decrease in demand for child care and families’ ability to pay for it, she said. “While many families remain understandably reluctant to enroll their children in child care programs because the virus is still spreading in communities and children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, other families are struggling to find affordable child care options with available capacity for their children.

“There is a capacity shortage for child care in some Pennsylvania communities, largely due to the labor shortage crisis that has struck many industries. By regulation, licensed child care providers must maintain appropriate staffing ratios in order to safely serve children, and this means that some providers are operating under their licensed capacity,” James said.

“As waiting lists at many child care centers nationwide grow longer, many families are struggling to find child care, and as wage rates continue to rise, center owners are trying to avoid passing on the expense to families through higher tuition rates,” said Anthony D’Agostino, a child care industry veteran who works with centers nationwide through his business, Inspire! Care 360. “As child care becomes increasingly difficult to secure due to the staffing shortage, many parents will have to stay home to care for their children. As a result, regions across the country, including Central Pennsylvania, will see a double-digit economic decline over the next year.”

According to a survey of childcare centers by Start Strong Pa., 14 childcare centers in Northampton County reported they all have staff shortages. There are currently 319 families on waiting lists and 16 classrooms have been closed. The centers cite low wages, lack of benefits and underqualified candidates as challenges for recruiting and retaining staff.

In Dauphin County, 52 centers responded with 83% reporting staff shortages. There are 1,234 families on waiting lists and 207 classrooms have been closed. The centers cited the same reasons for the shortages.

Forty-two centers in York County responded to the survey. Eighty-eight % said they have staffing shortages. There are 1,249 families on waiting lists and 60 classrooms have been closed.

In Lancaster County, of the 40 respondents, 100 % reported shortages with 1,016 families on waiting lists and 123 classrooms closed.

Nine centers responded in Lebanon County with 89 percent saying they are short-staffed. There are 300 families on waiting lists and 10 classrooms have been shuttered.

“The Wolf Administration has taken significant steps to support the child care industry through this crisis, and we will continue to do so,” James said.

For example, child care providers received three distinct payments from the CARES Act, totaling about $220 million. The distribution of these funds was based on the findings of a Penn State study of COVID-19’s impact on Pennsylvania’s child care industry. Pennsylvania also received approximately $303 million from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 to support child care.

Finally, the American Rescue Plan Act allocated nearly $729 million to Pennsylvania for the purpose of stabilizing the commonwealth’s child care industry. DHS, through its Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), worked with Penn State’s Institute of State and Regional Affairs to develop a methodology of distributing these funds to Pennsylvania’s child care providers.

“Next week, DHS will announce its final plan for distribution of these stabilization funds to Pennsylvania child care providers, which we believe will have a significant positive impact on the child care industry for both providers and working families,” she said.

Debell said the money from the American Rescue Plan can be used to retain staff by increasing wages and offering retention and hiring bonuses. “The intent is to give better access and affordability to families and better salaries for workers.

“Congress now could come up with a long-term solution,” she said.

The expanded Child Tax Credits enacted by President Biden and Democrats is already delivering thousands of dollars to working Pennsylvania families has been a success, and activists and economists agree that it’s time for Congress to make the CTC permanent.

On Sept.16,450 economists signed an open letter urging Congress to pursue a permanent extension of President Biden’s child tax credit program. They argue that initial research showed a permanent child tax credit would “dramatically reduce childhood poverty” by improving educational, health-related and career outcomes for low-income youth. The letter also cited a study that concluded a permanent program would cost 16 cents for every $1 in new economic benefits.

It is not hard to see why Pennsylvanians so desperately need this tax credit. Analysts say it’s a “game changer” for cities with high child poverty rates, including Reading, Allentown and Philadelphia. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the tax credit covers about 90% of all Pennsylvania children under 18 in some capacity.

Pennsylvania, DeBell said, has a mixed system for childcare, which is a positive. “We have mom and pop facilities, larger entities and school districts. We are proud of our system.”

But, she said, there must be subsidies to ensure the system stays running. “If families can’t work, I don’t know how we recover (economically). “

Childcare rivals mortgage and rent. “Most people who have young children are early in their careers so they aren’t making a lot of money. Parents can’t be expected to bear the whole cost.”

Debell said it’s important to remember too, that child development and school readiness are essential for the future of the economy. “But families must be working to make that happen.”

Unger agreed. “We need high quality early education for workers down the road. There is nothing specific underway, but there are many resources available. We’ve got to explore ways to solve the issue.”

While the pandemic highlighted the problem, Unger said the high cost of childcare, the training and educational barriers for workers and the lack of access to high quality childcare have been an ongoing issue. “This is the beginning of our workforce system.”

Cris Collingwood

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