With pandemic-era grants ending and the industry facing a crisis, President Joe Biden proposed giving Connecticut $107 million in child care funding for another year to help with mounting challenges facing providers and families.
That money is part of Biden’s emergency request of $56 billion for domestic priorities like child care, disaster relief, high-speed internet expansion and energy assistance. The new funding for child care would replace the stabilization grants given to states during the pandemic, which expired at the end of September.
If approved, the $107 million for Connecticut would serve more than 2,500 providers and nearly 105,000 children in the state.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, who has been a long-time child care advocate, said federal funding is critical for an industry seeing closures, shortages of teachers and higher costs for families across the country. She argued that challenges within the sector have only worsened since the pandemic.
“There was a crisis before. Now it is catastrophic for parents, for families, for proprietors around the country,” DeLauro said on a Thursday call with White House advisers. “It’s urgent that we act to provide this funding to relieve the American people of the overwhelming burdens and costs of quality child care.”
“This has become a vicious cycle where parents are faced with either taking on extra work just to be able to afford safe and reliable child care or forgo working altogether and accepting lower income and a lower standard of living in order to stay home to take care of their kids,” she added.
Since the end of the COVID relief stabilization grants, child care providers and day care centers have had to adjust and deal with a multi-pronged issue: challenges around recruitment, high operational costs, enrollment issues and rising costs for families.
The Connecticut Office of Early Childhood said it sought to spread out state funding and the last of its federal grants, with some sent out in September. Commissioner Beth Bye said fund distribution was “equity based,” with more going to districts with high social vulnerability indexes and places that serve infants and toddlers.
Bye said one of the biggest challenges facing providers in Connecticut is their ability to recruit new talent, since they are some of the lowest-paid workers in the state. She said the industry is short thousands of workers, which has ripple effects on enrollment of children in need of care that is critical for brain development.
She expressed optimism about seeing increases in recent years at both the state and federal levels, but she said more funding is still necessary to stabilize the industry.
“They have stepped up with significant increases in child care funding, but the problem is the system has been so broken, and COVID sort of broke it even worse,” Bye said in an interview. “It does take a lot of funding just to get on solid ground, and that’s before paying teachers a professional wage.”
With the fate of Biden’s package unclear, Merrill Gay, the executive director of Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said he worries that the lapse in more funding will lead to closures of programs within the next several months.
According to a May survey from his group, there are about 3,800 staff vacancies in Connecticut’s early care programs. Gay noted that if some classrooms are not operating, then providers might not be able to break even.
Because of that, families are seeing increases in tuition, which advocates say are forcing them to make the tough choice of finding ways to cover costs or leaving the workforce to care for their children. The latter has predominantly fallen on women.
DeLauro said families are spending an average of close to $15,000 per child a year in Connecticut, but Gay noted that number can go much higher — to around $31,000 annually.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ned Lamont convened a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to come up with a five-year plan by the end of the year to invest in the workforce and expand access to subsidies. While advocates await that plan and the next state budget, they have concerns about additional fallout without more federal stabilization funds.
“I’m not holding out any great hopes for D.C. doing much in the current political context,” Gay said in an interview. “I fear that we’re going to start to see programs closing. It probably won’t be in the next month or two, but three to four to five months, I’d suspect we’ll start to see programs closing as they go through their reserves and aren’t able to meet payroll anymore.”
“We’ve got to get to a point that child care is a public good rather than a private burden of families,” he added. “We‘ve got to wake up and realize that it’s ridiculous to expect families when they are at their lowest net worth to be paying enormous sums for child care so that they can work to sustain their families.”
DeLauro also acknowledged the political reality in Congress of trying to pass priorities like child care in a divided Congress and a House that has moved further to the right with newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.
Advocates feel more hopeful about their prospects at the state level. Bye said child care is seen as more of a bipartisan issue in that capacity, as both Democratic and Republican governors recognize the demands for more money.
But securing it at the federal level is a much tougher feat politically, as Gay noted.
Congress is tasked with passing new government funding to avoid a shutdown by Nov. 17, as well as Biden’s emergency packages. In addition to the $56 billion for domestic issues, the president has also requested more than $100 billion in national security funding for Israel, Ukraine, border security and humanitarian aid for Gaza.
“Tough road — I’m not diminishing it,” DeLauro said. “But let us get to a point where we can have bipartisan negotiations.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.