In Texas, child-care providers are returning to a broken system

States have gotten millions of dollars in federal aid for child care, the first major infusion in decades. But only a handful are using it to overhaul their child-care systems.

BriTanya Bays cuts the ribbon during a reopening ceremony for Our Loving Village, a licensed childcare business she runs out of her home on February 18, 2021 in Stamford, Texas. Bays was joined by the mayor, members of the chamber of commerce; her husband, Lonnie; and their twin children, Bia and Cratos. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
BriTanya Bays cuts the ribbon during a reopening ceremony for Our Loving Village, a licensed childcare business she runs out of her home on February 18, 2021 in Stamford, Texas. Bays was joined by the mayor, members of the chamber of commerce; her husband, Lonnie; and their twin children, Bia and Cratos. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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STAMFORD, Tex. — A few minutes before the mayor arrived, BriTanya Bays ducked into the bathroom. She had crumbs on her blouse and a light stain she couldn’t diagnose, but hey, she told herself: That was the uniform when you worked with children.

She reached to the back of a drawer, pulled out a bottle of foundation she hadn’t used in a year and smeared a dab of cocoa-shaded L’Oreal across her cheeks.

“I don’t know what I’m trying to do with this look,” she said, sighing. “I just really want things to feel better this time.”

She’d advertised this morning, a Friday in late February, as the official unveiling of Our Loving Village, a licensed child-care program she planned to run out of her home. Technically, it was a reopening. Bays had started the business years earlier. She’d never earned much, but her revenue dwindled to nothing during the pandemic, and at the end of 2021, she’d decided to shut down.

The stress of losing her business caused Bays, 26, to develop sleep apnea and a heart arrhythmia. The only way she knew to stay sane was to research the problem, and so Bays had learned that more than 111,000 people left their child-care jobs during the pandemic — a tenth of the workforce. That mass exodus had left at least 6.5 million families across the nation without stable child care, census data from the spring of 2021 showed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation estimated that child-care breakdowns cost Texas $9.39 billion a year in lost income and tax revenue.

Lawmakers called this a crisis. They agreed to spend tens of billions of federal dollars to stabilize programs like Bays’s, and President Biden introduced a plan to send out more. The country would fix its child-care problems, Biden promised, and so Bays had decided to give Our Loving Village one more go.

Bays had done all she could to make reopening feel special. She’d filled her living room with red balloons, and she’d depleted her savings to hang a banner that declared her day care open for business. She’d even dressed her 3-year-old twins in matching flannels for the mayor and a collection of civic leaders. Bays didn’t need their approval — what she needed were parents who could afford her service — but their visit felt symbolic.

Maybe this time, it would work.

Already, though, Bays felt less than optimistic. Yes, the federal government had spent an unprecedented amount of money, but lawmakers had left it up to state leaders to decide how to spend those billions. Some states had doubled the rates they pay providers. They’d offered bonuses to child-care workers, and they’d doled out grants to business owners who wanted to expand.

Texas still hadn’t given out the bulk of its share. The relief dollars would arrive later that spring, Bays knew, but that money was temporary, not a solution for the underlying problems of an industry everyone seemed to agree was broken. When the federal money dried up, child care would still be too expensive for most parents, and workers like Bays would remain among the nation’s poorest.

Someone knocked on the front door. Bays stashed the makeup, then strode toward the porch straight-backed as if she weren’t afraid. The mayor and six members of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce huddled on her front steps.

“Nice banner,” a school board member said, nodding at the white-and-gold sign.

A woman emerged from a pickup truck with a pair of oversized blue scissors, and the mayor stepped forward to say that child care was “absolutely vital” to the town’s economy. Bays took the scissors. She gave each of her twins one end of a blue ribbon.

“I appreciate this opportunity to reopen my child-care business,” she said. “Is this even how you hold big scissors?”

She snipped. Someone in the crowd murmured “good luck,” then the dignitaries headed down the cracked asphalt toward their day jobs. Bays watched as the ribbon fluttered from her kids’ tiny hands. In three days, she’d reopen her business. Maybe the town’s economy did rely on her work, but the risk, Bays knew, was hers alone to bear.

‘This is my baby’

Historically, the United States has invested fewer public dollars in early childhood care relative to gross domestic product than almost any developed country. While parents can rely on the public education system to provide free schooling for kids 5 and older, the day-care industry runs largely without aid. The result, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said last year, is “a textbook example of a broken market.” Business owners like Bays earn very little profit — typically less than 1 percent, the Treasury Department noted in a report last year — and yet, for most families, day care is unaffordable.

That’s because parents of young children often must pay for day care when they can least afford it. Many are at the earliest stages of their careers, and some have to pay back student loans or mortgages. The average family with a child under 5 has to devote 13 percent of its annual income for day care — a number the department found is unaffordable for most families.

The only reason child care doesn’t cost even more is what the industry pays its workforce. Nationwide, its workers, nearly all of whom are women, earn an average of $27,680 — less than bellhops, taxi drivers and pet sitters — and few earn benefits or sick time.

Still, Bays always wanted to work in early education. Both of her grandmothers ran unregulated day cares in the 1990s, and when Bays was 13, she started watching kids at church in Fort Worth. Her home life could be chaotic, and she liked being around children because they seemed hopeful and loving. They looked up to her, and that felt good. She studied speech therapy at Abilene Christian University, and after she graduated, she took a position as the director of preschool at a center in Abilene, a midsized city two hours west of Fort Worth. The job paid $8.50 an hour.

Bays scraped by, but when she became pregnant with twins in 2018, she worried. Her day care charged $800 a month per infant, but she only earned $1,400 a month — $200 less than she’d need to pay. Her husband, a janitor in the Abilene School District, earned just a few hundred dollars more, not nearly enough to subsidize her work.

The only way Bays could work and afford child care, she decided, was to open a day care in her house. She tried first in Abilene, and she built up a decent list of clients, but she couldn’t afford the rent there, so after a year, she started looking for a town with cheaper housing.

She pulled census data and business listings for nearby communities, and in early 2020, Bays settled on Stamford, a rural town 45 minutes north of Abilene. Like more than half of Texas, Stamford was a child-care desert. The surrounding county had nearly 850 young children and just 100 available day-care spots. An unmet need, Bays thought.

Stamford is a cowboy town with lots of land, few businesses and a lower-than-state-average median income. When Bays arrived in March 2020, a dozen parents wanted to hire her, but they couldn’t afford to pay the $200 a week she hoped to charge.

Initially, Bays hoped those parents might be able to apply for a subsidy. The federal government has long provided grants to help low-income families pay for child care, but advocates say the $8.7 billion program is woefully underfunded. States administer the subsidies and chip in money to match the federal dollars, but most do not budget enough to cover every low-income family. Nationwide, more than 13 million children qualify based on their parents’ income, but just 1 in 9 eligible families actually receives the benefit.

A week after Bays moved to Stamford, the coronavirus shuttered schools and businesses. Texas officials implemented a variety of programs to help child-care workers weather the pandemic, but all cost money. To pay for them, the state temporarily stopped accepting families into the subsidy program.

Only one of the 12 families who’d called Bays was able to get in before the program closed. The others decided to keep their children home. Six children eventually enrolled, but most weeks, Bays earned just $600 — not enough to cover rent, expenses and a salary for herself.

As the pandemic wore on, Bays searched for ways to stay afloat. She tutored young people online and took a part-time job at Community Change Action, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income child-care workers. She applied for grants and loans, and she won $5,000 to plant a garden, plus another $400 from the Paycheck Protection Program, but bank officers said her business was too risky to back.

Friends suggested Bays should send her husband, who is White, to apply. Bays wondered if banks penalized her for being a Black woman, but her husband didn’t own the business. She was the one who studied child development.

“This is my baby,” Bays told friends. “I’m the business owner.”

As thousands of child-care workers found themselves in similar situations, federal lawmakers decided to invest in child care in ways they never had before. Congress sent more than $13 billion in relief to the industry in 2020, and last year, legislators allocated an additional $39 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act.

All told, Texas has received nearly $6 billion. When the first tranche of money landed, the state expanded its subsidy program and hired business coaches for providers. They also gave out grants to business owners, but home-based programs like Bays received nearly ten times less than centers did. Bays won just $6,309.

Most states started giving out their American Rescue Plan dollars soon after the federal government released the money. Texas was one of three holdouts.

As Bays waited for another round of relief, she cut back every expense she could, and she even skipped appointments her doctor said were necessary, but the second round of relief never arrived. By December 2021, Bays was out of money.

A crisis and an unlikely boon

After the mayor left, Bays collected the blue ribbon and settled on the couch to check her Facebook messages. She wasn’t sure how many kids she’d welcome on opening day. The parents who called her tended to have erratic schedules. Some days, they’d bring their children to Bays before dawn; on others, they’d text to report car troubles or a lost shift, and Bays would go without pay.

The page loaded, and Bays found that three moms had written. One was moving to Stamford from Oklahoma and hoped to drop off her son as soon as they arrived. Another needed a weekend sitter, and the third sounded desperate: She had three kids but could only afford to pay $100 a month total.

“I’ve worked the math,” the mom wrote. “I can’t afford any more on my own.”

The woman might have qualified for a subsidy, and the workforce commission had started placing families again, but in February 2022, Texas had 47,536 children on its waiting list.

“I can help you apply for the program,” Bays texted.

A truck pulled in front of the house. All week, Bays had been hosting open houses for new clients. Bays was expecting two that day. Vanessa Mohn had a 3-year-old, and the other mom, a newly single 26-year-old named Jasmine Patchett, had three children. Bays had told both to come by around 4 p.m., but she hadn’t heard from Patchett.

Bays made it to the porch just as Mohn, eight months pregnant, climbed out of the truck. A tiny boy followed her.

Mohn had called Bays a few weeks earlier to enroll her son, Apollo. Earlier in the pandemic, Mohn had worked at Walmart while her boyfriend, Brandan, worked as a water distributor and volunteer firefighter. Mohn’s parents had agreed to watch Apollo, but they called at least once a week to report that Apollo was sick, and Mohn needed to leave work to pick him up. Mohn told Bays that Walmart had fired her for the slew of absences. She’d worked for a bit at Dollar General, but most weeks, her bosses only gave her four hours of work.

After six months, Walmart had agreed to take Mohn back, and when she returned, she found that the job came with a new benefit. Texas had decided to give service industry workers a year of free child care. Mohn could enroll Apollo in the subsidy program immediately.

Bays led Mohn toward the couch, and Apollo dashed toward the playroom to hang out with Bays’s twins, Bia and Cratos.

“I just want to ask if you have any questions,” Bays said.

Mohn said her boyfriend had spent hours ensuring the home was up to code.

“His main thing was the floor plan,” Mohn said. “He went through and he studied that like nobody’s business.”

Bays laughed and said she appreciated the extra inspection. She was renting, but the landlord had raised the rent twice in the last year, so she hoped to buy it. Those notes might be helpful.

“If you don’t have any other questions,” Bays said, “I wanted to talk to you about your subsidy voucher. They still have not sent me your paperwork. Did you get something?”

Mohn said she’d called a few times but that no one answered. Bays had tried, too, and she feared she might not reach someone before opening day. Plus, Mohn’s second baby was due in a month, and she hadn’t been back at Walmart long enough to qualify for maternity leave. She’d have to take unpaid time off, and Bays worried that might affect her program eligibility.

“I’m trying not to stress,” Mohn said. “But I’m pretty much working until I pop.”

They talked for a while about Apollo’s food preferences — broccoli was good, hard-boiled eggs were out — then Bays glanced at her phone. The open house was ending soon, and Patchett hadn’t shown. Mohn nodded at Apollo.

“He can’t write his name,” she said. “I’ve been working with him on it, but I feel like he’s going to be behind in school.”

Bays reached for Mohn’s hand.

“No worries,” Bays said. “I’ve got so much training. We’ve got it.”

Watching an infant for $26.25 a day

The next day, while the twins napped, Bays hoisted three stacks of paperwork onto a table.

Like most states, Texas pays different subsidy rates for different age groups. Normally, Bays would earn $26.25 a day for every infant she watched, but just $22.05 for a 4-year-old. During the pandemic, Texas officials agreed to raise the infant payout temporarily to $31.50 a day, but that rate expires this year. Some families told Bays they intended to leave their children for up to 12 hours, meaning she’d earn roughly $2 an hour to watch their child. Bays scribbled a few numbers, then closed her eyes. Teenage babysitters charged more than that.

Texas officials settle on subsidy rates the way most states do. Every three years or so, officials survey providers to see how much they charge. The state then sets its payments somewhere between the highest and lowest rates. The problem, analysts at Children at Risk and other advocacy organizations argue, is that those surveys only capture how much parents can afford, not how much the work costs.

Because Texas pays different rates for different regions, the survey model particularly hurts providers in poor and rural areas. Stamford-area families can’t afford to pay much, so the state sets the area’s reimbursement rates at a percentage of what is already a low number.

Before the pandemic, fewer than half of Texas’s 17,000 providers accepted subsidies, and legislative researchers found that the state’s low reimbursement rates were the primary reason so many refused.

Most states used at least part of their federal relief money to beef up subsidy payouts. While Texas temporarily enhanced its rates by 20 percent, Michigan and Illinois each increased theirs by 30 percent.

In Louisiana, officials raised the infant rate from $29.65 per day to $61 for family child-care programs. And in New Mexico, licensed child care homes now receive between $855 and $1,115 a month — as much as $56 a day for an infant.

Advocates at Children at Risk estimate that if Texas followed its neighbors’ lead, the state would have to pay between $58 and $61 a day for an infant — nearly double what Bays earns now. That would require a much larger investment, advocates allow, but Texas can afford it: The state began the 2022 fiscal year with more than $24 billion in surplus.

‘No one wants to work in child care’

As Bays pored over paperwork Saturday afternoon, the phone rang. Patchett, the young mom who was supposed to come by Friday, was on her way. When Patchett arrived around 4 p.m., her three children hid behind her.

“They’ve never been to actual day care before,” Patchett explained.

The oldest, Haylie, was nearly 4, but in the past, Patchett and her then-husband worked staggered shifts. Someone was always home to watch the kids. The couple broke up in the fall of 2021, and Patchett had to quit her certified nurse’s assistant job to stay with the children.

Patchett told Bays she’d survived off the monthly checks the federal government sent out as part of its expanded child tax credit, but the program ended in January. She’d found a job at a rent-to-own furniture store, but couldn’t work until she’d hired someone to watch her children.

“It’s been hard,” Patchett told Bays. “No one wants to work in child care.”

Patchett lived half an hour away, in a town with 1,500 people and zero child-care facilities. She’d tried to find care closer to her house, but a nearby Head Start was full, as was every center. A few offered to put Patchett on a waiting list, but the centers closed at 4:30 p.m., and some days, the furniture store wanted her to work until 7.

“And if you don’t got nobody to pick them up, then …” Patchett said, trailing off.

Bays nodded at Patchett’s youngest, a baby named Skylar. If she was under 18 months, the state would pay Bays $31 a day. If she was older, Bays would earn nearly $3 less.

The rate differences were small, just a few dollars each day, but Bays’s profit margin was so thin, she needed every nickel. Plus, the rate increase Texas authorized during the pandemic would disappear in September, and Bays would lose another four or five dollars per child each day.

“How old is she?” Bays asked.

“One,” Patchett said.

“One and how many months?” Bays asked. “Is she under 18 months?

“Aug. 17 was her birthday,” Patchett said.

Bays worked backward on her fingers, and as the months added up, her face fell. Skylar had turned 18 months a few days earlier.

Paying for supplies with food stamps

By Sunday morning, Bays had worked a dozen unpaid hours since the ribbon cutting. Mohn had lingered for three hours Friday night, Patchett stayed nearly five Saturday, and Bays spent another four finishing paperwork. On Sunday, she drove 36 miles of unpaved country roads to talk to a mom whose asthmatic 4-year-old needed occasional care, then she pushed on to Abilene to shop for the week ahead.

In-home day-care workers are required to provide breakfast, lunch and one snack to the children they watch. Stamford has only one grocery store — the Walmart where Mohn works — and Bays’s WIC card doesn’t work there. The prices are cheaper at an HEB in Abilene.

At the store, Bays pulled out her phone to calculate. The USDA’s Child and Adult Food Care Program would reimburse her a dollar or two per meal per kid, but the check wouldn’t arrive for another month, so Bays had to use her own food stamps.

Bays couldn’t waste even a few dollars, so she scanned the end caps for coupons. She danced in the aisle when she found one that lowered the price of whole wheat penne pasta to 92 cents a bag. Federal nutrition regulations bar Bays from serving tomato sauce with too much sugar in it. The healthier brands cost more. Bays read every unit price and ingredient list before settling on two $3.64 jars of sugarless Prego and three $2.94 bottles of Alfredo sauce.

She stacked her cart high with five-pound bags of frozen strawberries, sweet corn and stir-fry vegetables, then she headed to the meat department. Around 8 p.m., she pushed two packed carts toward the checkout line. None of the food was for her or her husband, but when the cashier finished tallying, the tab came to $338.72 — more than half of her monthly food stamp allotment.

‘Do you have drop-in?’

Bays stayed up until 1:30 a.m. finalizing lesson plans, and by opening day she was exhausted. The children were supposed to arrive at 7 a.m., so around 6, Bays padded into the kitchen to cook breakfast. The oven dinged just as Apollo rang the doorbell.

Bays opened the door, and the 3-year-old rushed toward a bucket of plastic insects as if he’d been there a hundred times.

“That’s a beautiful fly you got there,” he told Bays.

Mohn’s boyfriend waved, and as soon as his truck disappeared, Apollo broke into tears. He tried to bang his head against the wall and a small ironing board, but Bays caught his eyes and handed him a pillow.

“If you want to hit your head, let’s see how this feels,” she said.

He knocked his head against the pillow. His tears slowed down.

“It’s scratchy,” he said.

Bays reached out and took the boy’s snotty hand, then led him toward the dining room. Apollo pulled a bowl of yogurt close to his chest but didn’t eat. Bays looked down at her phone to give him a moment of space. Patchett had texted to say she was running late. The subsidy office still hadn’t confirmed whether they would pay for Apollo, so Bays called the local commission office. The phone rang for three minutes, but no one answered.

“No,” Apollo yelled, pushing the yogurt away. “I don’t want to.”

Bays didn’t force Apollo to eat. She didn’t reprimand him for yelling, and she never raised her voice. Instead, she told him she knew first days were scary, and she asked if he wanted to read. He nodded a timid yes.

They skittered toward the living room, where her husband, Lonnie, was holding up a stuffed frog wearing a pink polka-dot dress. Apollo crawled close, and Lonnie pitched his voice up.

“I’m Miss Froggy,” Lonnie said.

Bays designs her own syllabi using a mix of Waldorf and Montessori strategies. That day, she taught from the Frog Street Curriculum, a dual-language, interactive program for preschoolers. With Miss Froggy’s help, they went through half the alphabet and two books. Afterward, Apollo and the twins practiced writing the first letters in their names.

Three hours passed, and Bays texted Patchett to ask if she was on her way. Patchett said she’d had too much trouble wrangling her children, and she’d decided to wait until tomorrow. Bays’s stomach tightened. She had expected to earn $110 that day, but now she’d only get $26 for Apollo.

She took the children outside with pinwheels to learn about wind, then she served hot dogs, fresh corn and whole wheat bread. She tried the subsidy office again after lunch, but no one answered.

By 1 p.m., the children were asleep. Bays grabbed a stack of papers and climbed onto her bed to work while the babies snoozed. Her phone played a tinny lullaby.

Apollo was still sleeping when Mohn arrived at 3 p.m. Bays knelt and told him it was time to go, and he sleepily shook his head no. He begged to stay, and he cried until Bays told him they could bounce toward the front door like frogs.

When they reached the stairs, he turned back and squealed with delight.

“See you tomorrow,” he called.

After they left, Bays sat under her white-and-gold banner. She spent another three minutes listening to the subsidy line ring, then she loaded Facebook. Patchett had written, promising she’d be there “bright and early” the next morning, and three others had messaged Bays to ask about the cost. Bays opened the first message.

“Hi i saw yall reopen your day care <3 <3 <3 i’m looking for a place for my 2 year old to go here in Stamford. could I get some more info on prices etc.”

Bays clutched her phone to her chest and allowed herself to smile. People did need day care. This business was going to work.

“I’m glad to hear you are considering us for your family’s child-care needs,” Bays wrote. “We are a licensed child-care program that provides high-quality educational child care in a family environment. Our private pay rate is $200/week per child. We currently have space in our day program. What hours are you needing?”

The woman replied a few seconds later.

“Do you do drop-in?” she asked. “We have a very crazy schedule.”

Story editing by Annys Shin. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Brian French. Design by J.C. Reed.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified the school where Bays earned her bachelor's degree. She attended Abilene Christian University, not Texas Christian University. The article has been corrected.

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