CERCLE Workforce Pilot trainee engages with infants at Hope Child Development Center. Hope for New Haven

Imagine being hungry, and you are gifted a $100 voucher to buy food. Great gesture, right? Now imagine there are no restaurants or grocery stores in your neighborhood.

You travel several miles to find the nearest grocery store. Upon entering, you discover all the shelves are bare. You travel even farther to find a fully stocked grocery store, but they are only allowing 10 people to shop. Hungry and exhausted, you happen upon a restaurant, only to find that your $100 is not enough to purchase anything to eat.

Georgia Goldburn

Suddenly, that voucher is revealed to be a mere illusory gesture of largesse. That is what Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget has done for Connectcut’s families with young children. Worse still, it inexplicably reversed course on previous investments, declined to build upon innovations created during the pandemic, and positions Connecticut behind other states in early care and education reforms.

In his budget address, Governor Lamont touted his investments in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Care4Kids program, creation of 1,300 infant and toddler slots, and tax credits to incentivize corporations to assist their employees with childcare costs. He heralded these measures as definitive steps to help Connecticut’s family grappling with childcare costs. He proclaimed that “the most important education reform is a great teacher in the classroom.” Ironically, the governor eliminated the wage subsidy designed to attract and maintain great teachers in early childhood classrooms.

Ironically, the governor eliminated the wage subsidy designed to attract and maintain great teachers in early childhood classrooms.

The childcare industry’s inability to attract workers with paltry wages, minimal health insurance and retirement benefits, is at the heart of the current childcare crisis. Wages, which account for 80% of most childcare business expenses, have increased by 30% over the past four years with mandatory minimum wage increases. As the industry struggles to meet these demands, many seasoned early educators are opting for the public schools, where they can command a 60% salary increase, while others abandon the profession altogether.

This staffing shortage has resulted in a 20% decrease in capacity across the state according to Merrill Gay, director of the CT Early Childhood Alliance. This adds to the shortage of over 50,000 infant and toddler slots pre-pandemic. At Hope Child Development Center, our capacity is down 30%, and the continued attrition may result in even further loss of capacity. As previously analogized, giving parents more money to purchase a service that does not exist, or is entirely too expensive, does little to move the needle for Connecticut families.

Even more disconcerting, the governor’s budget, in a financial sleight of hand, proposes to remove over 8,000 children from the Care4Kids program and set a target of 17,000 children each year, while touting an annualized rate increase that keeps parents locked out of 50% of the childcare market.

For families of those 8,000 children, their EITC will not be enough to offset the loss of an $11,000-$15,000 subsidy. This not only represents a continued trend of limiting access for low- and middle-income families to this critical program, but it renders the creation of the 1,300 subsidized infant and toddler slots moot. This proposal ensures that these families will be forced to opt out of Connecticut’s workforce.

According to the Center for American Progress, 9.5% of Connecticut parents quit a job, declined a job, or changed jobs due to childcare (pre-COVID), placing Conneccticut above the national average. In a recent survey of close to 6,000 families conducted by the Office of Early Childhood (OEC), 50% reported that either they or another adult in their household reduced working hours or quit their job to care for their children during the pandemic. Of these families, 34% had not fully returned to work at the time of the survey. Governor Lamont’s budget entrenches the status quo.

The governor may argue that his tax credit to corporations would increase access and engage businesses as rightful stakeholders in solving the childcare crisis. The governor is wagering that a 25% tax credit to corporations, aimed at building onsite childcare facilities or offsetting childcare supports to employees, will create a pathway forward. However, If these corporations take the governor up on his offer, they will soon find themselves in the same boat as existing childcare businesses. They will have beautiful new facilities with empty classrooms, as they too grapple with a non-existing childcare workforce pipeline.

While the stakes are high for the childcare industry and families, they are even higher for Connecticut. CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima said “The childcare sector is the workforce behind the workforce” and “You can’t have the workforce you need if you don’t have that foundational workforce.”

Governor Lamont had a unique opportunity to enact transformational reforms for Connecticut’s youngest children and families, fix its broken childcare industry, and position Connecticut’s businesses and economy for long term growth. This budget fell disappointingly and woefully short.

Georgia Goldburn is Director of Hope For New Haven/CERCLE.