How do we fix child care in the South? These 5 advocates have thoughts

Before the pandemic, the South was already a place where child-care workers are paid less, even when wages are adjusted for cost of living, than the national average. Many places in the South, particularly rural areas, don’t have enough child-care slots for the number of eligible children. 

This year, Reckon obtained data on child-care program closures in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and spoke with child care owners and advocates across the South to get a clearer picture of how the pandemic affected the South’s child-care infrastructure. 

We found that communities of color are disproportionately affected, that government funding has helped keep many centers afloat but doesn’t provide reliable long-term support, and staffing shortages are reaching crisis levels. 

And yet, we also found a diverse army of advocates, owners and working parents pushing for change to keep the South’s patchwork child-care system from collapsing. They’re asking policy makers to listen and to take action — before more programs are lost. 

Reckon asked five child-care advocates from around the South about what actions would make the biggest positive impact on the South’s struggling child-care infrastructure.  

Tatum said policy makers and the public first have to rethink how they approach child care. And that means treating child-care providers like the small businesses they are, and stabilizing their sources of funding. 

“The thing that’s hard for people to understand about child care is that it’s a business. No one is getting rich, but (child care providers) have to make enough money to keep the doors open, and they have to make enough to pay themselves and their staff. People think of it as a community service. While it does have a lot of the characteristics of community service, it is fundamentally a small business. If we’re going to educate our children through a small business, we have to treat it like one. 

“The federal money that’s been invested has been keeping the doors open but what happens when the federal money goes away? (Federally funded grants) need to be on a more regular and predictable basis. In Georgia, the state has provided payments to child care providers, which has been wonderful, but they’re not predictable payments. You get $20,000 this month, but you don’t know if you’re going to get anything else, ever. The state is working on a plan now to provide more consistent provider payments. That will be very helpful.” 

Families at certain income levels qualify for government subsidies to help them afford child care. The state pays providers a set amount per week for each of these children, at what’s called the market rate. Bennett owns two child-care centers in Alabama, and most of her children are covered by subsidies. She said an increase in the market rate would help centers that primarily serve low-income communities be able to improve quality and afford to hire more workers.  

“The market rate, in my opinion, is the bare minimum. When you think about how most people in other industries are ramping up what they pay employees, Alabama has not compensated on the child care side. I think an increase in what we receive per child per week would certainly help.” 

She’d also like to see the state increase the number of days a center is allowed to be closed and still receive its subsidies, since the pandemic has increased the need for health-related closures. 

“If a center closes two classrooms for 10 days, it costs them $18,000. We’re business owners. That puts these owners in a situation where they have to choose their livelihood or to remain open. A really strong solution would be (the state) increasing the amount of closure days allotted, which would give owners the ability to close safely and still pay their staff.” 

Latimer wants to see two big changes: Increased wages and access to more affordable health insurance for child-care workers. 

“No exaggeration, people are leaving the field to go work at Target and Starbucks because it pays more and has more benefits, like college tuition and healthcare. So we’re losing so many people in the field. Minimum wage in South Carolina is low, so while these child-care centers are paying above minimum wage, it’s still $8-$10 an hour for work that should earn more like $15. 

“Then we need different offerings for health insurance. There is (health insurance through the Affordable Care Act) and we offer health insurance through our alliance, but it’s still not cheap. Having (inexpensive health insurance) as a more readily available option would be awesome. 

“We have got to figure out the wages and healthcare because those really are the things that, to us, are not in the forefront of minds of legislators or the federal government.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical role played by home-based child care, where a provider cares for just a few children in her home rather than many children in a center, said Renew. 

“We know from the data that the families that are furthest from opportunities – families in rural communities, families that are Black and brown, that work nontraditional hours, and families with children with special needs – are more likely to be receiving care in home-based child care. So it’s this huge number of kids who we believe need the most support. 

“But what we’ve seen for homebased child care is less access to public (financial) supports. We have seen providers really struggling to access small business loans like the Paycheck Protection Program, and in different states it can be really challenging for them to access the stabilization or relief dollars. Home based providers are, for the most part, sole proprietors, so they don’t have a lot of the documentation that a center might have. They don’t have W2s or payroll records because they’re self-employed.  

“So when it came to applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, providers didn’t necessarily have the documentation that they needed.” 

It’s a problem with a relatively easy solution, she said. Home Grown has worked with states, communities and advocacy groups to design relief funds with homebased providers in mind. A Greenville, S.C.-based advocacy group called First Steps set up a county-wide emergency fund in order to distribute the county’s CARES Act money in a way that allowed all county child care providers access. 

“(Homebased care) is a really important option for diverse communities. They wear so many hats. They’re not just providers; they’re community anchors.” 

Welchlin’s work on a variety of issues affecting Black women, including child care, has given her a global view when it comes to addressing problems in child-care infrastructure. For her, solutions come through long term investments made in communities as a whole. 

“To me, these are human rights issues. Everyone has a right to work, have food, housing, clean water. When you don’t invest in places where you have low-wealth families and communities, and people of color, these are the consequences. If you (as an elected leader) are serving your whole state, you have to invest in every part of your state because our fates are linked.  

“This system has unraveled and revealed the brokenness and inequity in our systems, but also the humanity that exists in our communities: Helping one another get through this. Organizations like mine had to step in to fill those needs. But the government has a role to play in taking care of whole communities. Everyone is valuable.” 

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