When a relative told Tyleshia Lynn she could no longer look after Lynn’s son Jayceon while she worked, the Chicago woman scrambled to find safe and affordable daycare so she could keep her job stocking shelves at a local retailer.
“Every daycare center I found was either not close by, or too expensive, and I was so stressed out,” said Lynn, 25.
Can the Supply Meet the New Demand as Parents Return to Work?
She was relieved when, eventually, she learned of an opening at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning. Not only was it minutes away from her North Lawndale home, but the staff was able to secure assistance to help pay a babysitter to care for Jayceon at home when she works the overnight shift.
Jayceon, 5, a rising kindergartner, is already reading independently, and his teachers describe him as “a bit advanced,” Lynn said.
“From the moment I was there, I felt so hopeful. … I know that Jayceon is with people who genuinely care for him, and this is more than just their job,” Lynn said.
But such a positive outcome is elusive for scores other parents.
The steep shortage of affordable, high-quality child care for working families across the U.S. — a dire situation that was deemed a crisis decades before the pandemic — has only worsened during the past 15 months, with soaring unemployment, illness, and other hardships proving devastating to families and service providers, including preschools and daycare centers.
Now, with the long-awaited reopening of Illinois arriving last week, some say a critical shortage of workers, in businesses ranging from restaurants and retailers to health care and manufacturing, underscores Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s goal of transforming the state’s child care programs by improving equity, accessibility, and affordability.
Earlier this month, the federal Office of Child Care released guidance on how states can use the nearly $15 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan to support children, families, and child care providers.
This guidance arrives as “many communities are facing child care shortages as families look to return to the workplace and the cost of child care places a heavy burden on family wellbeing,” federal officials said in a statement.
While the federal pandemic relief package includes $39 billion in child care relief funding — $15 billion in emergency funds for the block grant program and $24 billion for a child care stabilization fund — some say the enormous infusion of federal dollars alone is unlikely to solve a systemic and troubling lack of support for working families in need of safe and affordable care for their children.
Due to “chronic underfunding,” just 14% of income-eligible children receive child care assistance, federal officials said.
“We know that the pandemic did not invent these challenges, but it certainly accelerated these challenges,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday while visiting a bilingual child care center in Washington.
“Child care centers were closed. Parents have been out of work. Families’ budgets have been stretched,” said Harris, who praised the Biden administration’s new child tax credit, which will provide eligible families with $250 to $300 a month per child.
ReadyNation Illinois, a nonprofit that promotes public policies and programs to build a stronger workforce, estimates that the state’s child care crisis results in a $2.4 billion annual hit to Illinois’ economy, the organization’s state director Sean Noble said.
Across the U.S., Noble said, the child care crisis is estimated to cost the national economy $57 billion, with a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study finding a lack of options for child care and related family concerns is preventing 1 in 4 unemployed workers from returning to full-time jobs.
“The problem is parents need affordable and high-quality child care so they can work, and when they can’t find child care, the impact on the economy is writ large,” Noble said.
“COVID took these decades-old problems and made them worse,” Noble said, adding, “I’ve never seen more hurdles related to child care. … As a society, we’ve got to do better.”
At the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, a nonprofit serving more than 650 children and their families on Chicago’s West Side, CEO Bela Moté said the pandemic has eroded many Chicago-area child care programs, and some are now facing a serious shortage of qualified employees.
Essential workers who had no choice but to work outside the home during the pandemic struggled to find daycare for their children when centers first shut down, and the lack of sufficient daycare options also forced many women to leave the workforce so they could supervise their children’s remote learning, Moté said.
Even with Illinois’ reopening, the already dwindling contingent of qualified child care workers nationwide has been further decimated, making it nearly impossible for some early childhood centers to fully staff their programs.
“The invisible part of the child care crisis story is centered were already having trouble hiring qualified teachers before the pandemic, and now, they’re on life support,” said Moté, adding that more state and federal funding is needed to better compensate child care workers, many of whom leave a profession they love after finding it impossible to pay their bills.
In addition, Moté says, state and federal policy changes are needed to dismantle rules that often penalize child care providers, and make it difficult for the working poor to qualify for financial assistance.
“As a nation, we declare that children are our priorities, but how do you leave early learning out of that conversation?” Moté said.
At Two Rivers Head Start, which offers kindergarten readiness programs for children ages 3 to 5 years old for income-eligible families in Kane and DeKalb counties, center director Tigen Sanavongxay said officials are “constantly looking for whatever funding we can get.”
While Two Rivers once had 10 sites, including preschool programs, infant and toddler child care, and support for pregnant women, operators were not able to even before the pandemic to obtain the needed grants to sustain their slate of offerings. The nonprofit has scaled back its programs to three locations: Elgin, Aurora, and Sycamore.
The state’s child care assistance program helps families pay tuition for Head Start, which is offered strictly to low-income families, said Sanavongxay, who leads the Elgin site, where she said student enrollment has dropped to 65% of what it was pre-pandemic.
“Some of our parents lost their jobs, and are no longer working, and others are afraid to have their children return to school,” Sanavongxay said. “But we also have many families here who have been working the whole time at grocery stores, factories, and fast-food restaurants, and they have been back at school since (last summer).”
Chicago resident Tamekia Triplett, 24, said after caring for her son Torrian at home until his first birthday, she was both excited and nervous to return to the workforce.
After finding affordable, high-quality child care for Torrian at the Carole Robertson Center, Triplett said she was able to find a full-time job as a security guard at O’Hare International Airport, “and I was able to support me and my son.”
“At first I was scared to work anywhere, and I was really nervous about Torrian being in daycare because he had always only been with me and my mom,” Triplett recalled. “But the rate they provided was in my price range, and once I started working, I had no worries at all, and the people at his school have shown me nothing but respect.
“He was not even walking when he started school, and within a week, he was walking and running,” Triplett said. “Pretty soon, he’ll be moving to the big kid's classroom, when he turns 2, but he’ll still be with the teachers who have been with him since the day he started, which I love.”
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