WASHINGTON – The Biden administration released nearly $40 billion of the administration's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package to confront what President Joe Biden called an “acute, immediate child care crisis,” distributing money to help providers pay their rent and rehire workers made jobless by the pandemic, as well as make child care more affordable for low-income families.
The U.S. child care sector collapsed under the confines of the coronavirus pandemic, shuttering thousands of day care centers depleted by low enrollment and overwhelmed by COVID-19 sanitation costs. Parents, often women, who could no longer afford child care, were forced to leave their jobs and shoulder the burden at home. The closures have been especially stark for women of color, who predominantly make up the child care workforce.
"The strength of our country, the resilience of our economy depends on affordability and the availability of child care," Vice President Kamala Harris said in remarks announcing the implementation at the White House.
As more Americans return to work and schools reopen, advocates said the child care industry is being left behind. Among the child care centers that remained open, 81% say they lost enrollment over the past year, according to a survey of more than 6,000 providers by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Though an exact count of center closures is unclear, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 166,900 fewer people worked in child care in December 2020 than were in those jobs during the same month in 2019, when the industry employed about 1,040,400 people.
For educators such as Lori Lorenz, owner and director of Little Explorers Preschool in Fishers, Indiana, the fallout has been devastating.
"I never experienced the challenge we've had this year – it's just been so hard. ... I'm so concerned that I'm not keeping everyone here as healthy as I need to. ... I have some kids who have autoimmune deficiencies, and I have to think about that, and it's just a lot," she told USA TODAY through tears.
"We're honestly probably one of the hardest working professions that there is. And we do it because we love it. Obviously, it doesn't pay anything – we don't make anything. It's truly because we love kids and we love teaching. But it's just tough when you don't feel like you're being valued for what you do," she said.
The money will be distributed through two funds, including $24 billion to help hard-hit child care providers pay their rent or mortgage; invest in COVID-19 safety protocols, such as purchasing personal protection equipment and improving ventilation; rehire workers who have been laid off; and provide mental health services for educators and children, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.
The administration plans to provide $15 billion to expand the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the federal program that helps low-income families pay for child care, giving states more latitude in making child care tuition more affordable and increasing compensation for early childhood workers.
"It’s a core part of making our economy work. It’s important to small businesses, to ensuring we don’t have job losses in the short term, and in the long term, child care jobs are good paying jobs,” Carmel Martin, White House deputy domestic policy adviser for upward mobility, told USA TODAY. "It’s important from the perspective of parents and their ability to live happy lives but also go to work without worrying about children and the critical component of child development.”
The Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families will release the money to states, which will be responsible for dispersing dollars to thousands of child care providers, many of which are small businesses owned by people of color operating on razor-thin margins. The White House estimated the stabilization grants would ensure that hundreds of thousands of child care providers, serving more than 5 million children, will stay afloat.
Laura McSorley, director for early childhood policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said states need to act with the same urgency as the federal government by distributing dollars equitably and in a timely manner to providers and families in need.
"There is real devastation on what are ultimately tiny businesses and solo entrepreneurs who were never in a position to have strong margins but also for families and their young children who are in desperate need of relief," she said.
Martin said HHS will require states to report the steps they take to ensure there’s equitable access to dollars, including reaching out to smaller providers, offering materials in multiple languages and possibly reserving funding to make sure providers who take longer to apply still have money available to them. The administration plans to provide webinars, peer-to-peer training and other guidance to help states determine how to distribute funding in the coming weeks.
A devastating toll on child care
Advocates said the pandemic laid bare the deep cracks within the child care industry before COVID-19. Though some providers receive public funding, most rely on tuition, placing a high burden on families to pay the price of care. Before the pandemic, 1 in 6 children eligible for child care assistance received it, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found in 2019.
An analysis in 2018 by the Center for American Progress found half of all Americans with young children lived in a so-called child care desert, or area that lacked licensed child care providers.
Child care workers earn an average of $11.65 an hour, often without health insurance or paid family leave.
"The system wasn't working well before the pandemic, and child care was really out of reach for many families – either financially or physically," McSorley said.
About 1 million mothers with a child age 17 or younger at home left the workforce from fall 2019 through fall 2020, compared with half a million men who left during the same time frame, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Harris spoke of her own mother's reliance on a neighbor to watch her and her sister during her childhood. Regina Shelton, the neighbor whom Harris has warmly referred to as a "second mom," ran a child care center.
"For many, many people – and many women in particular – child care has often been the prerequisite for their ability to work," she said. "And for many others, child care is their work."
Angela Lampkin, school director for Start Early’s Educare Chicago school, said the funding will help relieve the burdens on women of color. Ninety-three percent of child care workers are women and 45% are Black, Latino or Asian, according to BLS data.
"Many of the things that (child care workers are) asked to do is really on the backs of ... women, especially women of color, who aren't making fair wages themselves," said Lampkin, a Black woman. "Those women have had to balance being at work and what's happening in their own home, sometimes juggling between their own children having to do virtual learning and still coming out the house every day to support others, people's children to grow, develop and be safe in a pandemic so that their parents can go to work each day."
Half of providers remained closed in July, despite funding from small-business loans and stimulus packages passed by Congress, according to Child Care Aware of America, a research and advocacy group. That number dropped to 13% by December 2020, but NAEYC found that 2 in 5 providers reported taking on debt, including using personal credit cards or reducing costs through layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.
The money is an additional boost to $10 billion funneled to states, territories and tribes under the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in December and $3.5 billion approved for child care in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act last March.
Relief funds are intended to be a starting point
Martin acknowledged the funding is aimed at providing immediate relief but signaled the administration has more plans to address larger gaps in the child care industry.
"The funding we’re putting out today is designed to address the immediate crisis, but the president has a very robust agenda around the caregiving economy and building a sector that’s more resilient and can provide greater peace of mind to families and also advance our goals in terms of early childhood development and childhood well-being," she said.
Biden's latest legislative push on infrastructure includes $25 billion to upgrade construction of child care facilities. The president is expected to unveil the second half of his $4 trillion package, focusing on "human infrastructure," before the end of April, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. That package is likely to include funding for pre-K and lowering the cost of child care for families.
"This is really a critical first step, a down payment towards the president's long-term commitments on the campaign to build a more equitable early childhood system for children, families and educators," McSorley said.
Texas is set to receive the most funding with $4.4 billion, California will receive $3.7 billion, Florida will get $2.4 billion, and New York will see $1.8 billion in child care funding, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House. Funding is distributed based on share of children under age 5, children receiving free and reduced price lunches and state per capita income.
Mario Cardona, chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America, said that although the $39 billion injection will help stabilize the industry, the Biden administration has an opportunity to transform the child care system with more funding through the president's infrastructure proposal.
"Child care is just as important as roads and bridges. It enables parents to work and keeps our economy moving," Cardona said. "As the Biden administration releases their next plan, to support 'human infrastructure' or the 'caregiving economy,' we will be looking for significant increased investment in child care."
Contributing: Alia Wong
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 relief: Biden releases $39 billion to aid child care industry