Opinion: Congress must act to guarantee funding for child care in New York

The government shutdown could imperil billions of dollars of federal funding necessary to keep New York’s child care system afloat.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced investments to expand access to child care during a visit to Vivvi Care and Learning in Brooklyn on May 31, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced investments to expand access to child care during a visit to Vivvi Care and Learning in Brooklyn on May 31, 2023. Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

In the continuing federal budget negotiations, let’s make sure that children and their care are not forgotten. U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have been supportive of child care, and both have signed on to the Child Care Stabilization Act, which Gillibrand co-sponsored, to help avert a major loss in funding for child care spending which will occur on Sept. 30th when federal funding is set to expire. We need other New York legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, to follow suit. 

When I started doing research on and writing about childcare about 10-15 years ago, it was shocking how little national attention was paid to this obvious challenge. Now, it is hardly news. Both Republican and Democratic parents struggled with care throughout the Covid shutdowns. Ask any parent of a young child and they’ll tell you how expensive child care is, if they can even find it. 

For many, in the past three years, things have gotten a little better. The American Rescue Plan Act provided $39 billion dollars nationwide to enable states to invest in child care systems and improve them for providers and families. This funding stream will end on Sept. 30. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, this money has helped over 10 million children and their families receive child care, has allowed 92% of over 12,000 nationally surveyed programs (both center and home-based) to stay open and has helped support increased training for child care workers.

In New York, these funds contributed approximately $1.8 billion in relief funds to the state's child care industry, with $1.1 billion in stabilization grant funding and $633 million in discretionary funds to the state's Child Care and Development Block Grant providing funding to providers to enable families that cannot afford care to receive subsidies. This enables many parents to work. Without this funding, fewer children will be able to access care and fewer parents will be able to stay in the workforce. 

Without this federal funding, 5,700 child care centers are expected to close in New York state and 250,000 of New York’s children will lose access to child care.  As a result of this increased federal funding over the past three years, more than thirty three percent of states increased their eligibility limits for child care assistance to exceed inflation, 40 states increased their payments to providers and 12 states increased the amount of time parents can receive child care while searching for a job, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. In New York, families earning up to 85% of the state median income – $93,258 for a family of four – are eligible for child care subsidies, and both center-based and home care providers have been able to receive financial workforce retention grants helping to raise their incomes to enable some to remain in the industry. The end of this funding could have catastrophic effects. 

Even with this federal financial support, child care providers are still amongst the lowest paid workers in the country and, as a result, most lack any retirement savings. Their national median annual wage is less than $30,000 a year. In New York State, the median annual salary ranges from $30,000 in more rural counties to a high of just $35,500 in New York City. This is likely responsible for the 9% decline in the number of providers in New York State since 2020 and significant worker turnover. 

Unlike other industries, there is no way to make child care more cost effective without affecting its quality. Children need to be able to develop relationships with their providers, and the inability to do so as a result of too much worker turnover affects the quality and continuity of their care. Parents cannot afford to pay more for child care, and providers cannot provide quality care for less. This gap must be filled by government funding.

Despite the recent federal legislation supporting childcare, many still cannot find care because they live in child care deserts, places where care simply doesn’t exist. In addition, many facilities and home care providers in NY are currently operating under capacity as a result of staffing shortages caused by the inability to adequately pay providers. Licensed providers find themselves unable to hire workers who instead choose to work in the food service industry or in schools where the salaries are higher. 

As a result of these staffing shortages, many facilities do not accept infants and toddlers who require higher staff-to-child ratios and close their programs on short notice or earlier in the day than they would like to, all of which affects parents’ ability to work. Without an immediate allocation of federal dollars, these staffing shortages are likely to remain and even grow. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised to allocate $7 billion for child care over the next four years, but there are few specifics about where this money will come from. Passing federal legislation to support child care will help the state of New York to keep its promises and improve both the access to and quality of child care.

The $39 billion in funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act may sound like a lot of money, but it’s a very small part of the overall federal budget, which was more than $5 trillion in 2023. Let’s take the children out of the broader budget negotiation by passing the Child Care Stabilization Act now.

The Child Care Stabilization Act and leading national advocates are calling for $16 billion in emergency funding for child care, which is needed before the end of this month. Our children are our future. We know that the House and Senate are balancing many interests, but as a nation we need to prioritize spending on child care to help children, their families and the providers who care for them.