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Finding child care is still impossible for many parents

As the industry struggles to recover from the pandemic, parents are encountering daunting wait lists and severe staff shortages

A sign advertises positions at a preschool in Austin. Some centers have reported wait lists as large as 1,500 children due to staffing shortages that are keeping classrooms closed. (Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report)
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Mckell James first applied for child care in October 2019, five months before her oldest son was born. She got on a half dozen wait lists, but it took two years to get off just one. And that spot, while coveted, was only for two days of care each week. The Salt Lake City family took it anyway, falling into a dizzying juggling act the other three days, with James, 35, and her husband, Corper James, 51, balancing their full-time jobs while watching their toddler.

In the spring of 2022, after enduring a string of 10-day quarantines, Mckell James, a human resources director, and Corper, an employment attorney, decided to pull their son out of child care to try to keep the family healthy before the birth of their second child. Now, both children are on months-long wait lists at four child-care centers with no end in sight. When Mckell James had to return to work at the end of the summer, she and her husband hired a nanny for two days a week. At $25 an hour, the bill for part-time help nearly equals the cost of their monthly mortgage. The other three days, she and her husband split care of their sons.

“At the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Did I really do anything?’ ” James said. “I did everything and nothing and I don’t feel like I did anything fully right, because you’re spread so thin.”

Although most offices and schools have reopened, the pandemic is still hurting child-care and after-school programs. Parents face daunting wait lists. Child-care centers, which already operated on thin margins, are shuttering classrooms and capping enrollment numbers because of severe teacher shortages and a lack of funding.

“We knew the pandemic put a huge strain on a system that was already strained, so this is just a continuous struggle that’s been made worse,” said Nina Perez, the early childhood national campaign director for MomsRising, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The shortage of spaces means that some parents are still shut out of careers and losing income. Others have uprooted their lives and moved closer to family to receive more help. Still more are struggling to take care of their kids while working from home. Perez said the situation has become so tenuous that parents have told her they are taking out loans for child care or considering unsafe arrangements, like leaving young children alone for periods of time or with frail elderly family members.

In a late-summer Census Bureau survey of households, more than 365,000 adults reported losing a job because they needed to take time to care for children under the age of 5 in the four weeks preceding the survey. More than 1.3 million responded that an adult in the household left a job to care for children. More than 1.6 million supervised one or more children while working.

Parents with minor children make up almost one-third of the workforce and work disproportionately in fields like retail, education, health care and social assistance, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Yet child care is still largely seen as a personal problem for families — and especially women — rather than a social benefit that supports the younger generations who will eventually sustain many aspects of society.

Advocates and educators had hoped the federal government would provide permanent financial help through President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan, which would have provided money to stabilize the child-care industry by boosting the pay of early childhood educators and helping to lower costs for families. But the child-care funding was cut from the federal legislation in August. Many child-care centers continue to struggle, often unable to pay staff a living wage or even find enough workers to fully open classrooms.

Opinion | How to fix America’s broken child-care industry

“We can’t compete with McDonalds offering $15 to $17 an hour to start out,” said Toni Dickerson, a resource and referral administrator for Sussex Preschools, a network of five child-care centers in Delaware. “Pre-covid we were more worried about getting qualified staff. Now, we’re just trying to get staff.”

At Beach Babies Child Care, which runs four centers across Delaware, with a fifth slated to open soon, owner Sean Toner estimates that as many as 80 additional children could be served by his centers if he had enough staff to fill classrooms that are currently closed because of teacher shortages. Staffing “has always been an issue, but it’s never been exacerbated to the point it is right now,” he said.

In the meantime, the wait list for a spot at one of his centers has ballooned to 1,500 kids. “It was never like this,” he said. “There’s not enough child care in this area to serve the need.”

In Wisconsin, Kari Zimbric, 41, had to quit her job as a nurse practitioner last year because of a lack of child care. Zimbric registered her twins, now 21 months old, for child care more than six months before they were born in 2021. They have yet to find a spot. “No one had space for even one infant, let alone two,” Zimbric said. “Finding a day care for twins right now is pretty much an impossible task.”

Without available center-based care, Zimbric and her husband, Luke Zimbric, an engineer, hired a nanny to provide part-time care while Zimbric worked part-time as well. When the nanny quit for another position, the family “panicked and scrambled,” she said. They hired a college student who was home for the summer for temporary help. But soon, the stress of trying to find in-home help was too much. When the twins were 6 months old, Zimbric quit her job to stay home. “It was really hard,” she said. “I had a job I loved.”

For low-income parents, no day care often means no pay

Parents say they want more funding for the child-care sector to increase pay and capacity at centers, the return of the monthly child tax credit that could help offset some of the costs, better family leave policies — especially after the birth of a child — and government subsidies to help pay for care. Permanent change largely depends on Congress, although President Biden has said he would like to make the tax credit permanent.

In the absence of federal action, some states are stepping up. In Virginia, a new formula went into effect this month that will reimburse providers for the full cost of caring for children who receive state subsidies, rather than paying them a market rate that may be far below the actual cost. In California, new legislation will make it easier for low-income families to enroll in state-funded preschool and subsidized child care. And in New Mexico, voters this year will consider a ballot initiative that will permanently fund early childhood in the state, providing more than $1 billion to the system over the next eight years.

That doesn’t negate the need for federal investment, however, said Elliot Haspel, a senior fellow at Capita, a think tank focused on children and families. “As school funding has shown us, you quickly get huge inequities if you rely purely on the states. This will ultimately need to have a federal solution.”

Employers could also offer work-from-home arrangements and flexible schedules, as well as more paid time off, said Maura Mills, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s college of business who studies work-life balance. Many businesses have failed to offer flexibility to working parents, even when school systems adopt virtual days and child-care programs still require quarantines. “They’ve taken a lot of work-from-home options away,” Mills said. “It’s just an impossible bind for parents.”

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

In Salt Lake City, James wakes up around 7:30 a.m. and nurses her baby while answering emails, often with one hand. She takes calls and completes work between wrangling her toddler and caring for her infant. She often catches up on work in the evenings when her children are asleep.

She worries that if her job requires her to go in person more than the one day a week she’s currently managing, she’ll be forced to find a different position. Whatever job she takes, her paycheck has to cover child care. The family is eventually looking at a cost of $2,400 a month total just for part-time center-based care for both boys — if the children ever get off the wait list. Ultimately, she said, state and federal governments need to step up.

“We all need to do more to be family focused,” she said. “If the government really does care about families and care about future generations, put your money where your mouth is.”

This story about finding child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.