The cost of caring for your kids is anything but affordable for many families, and the pandemic made the nation’s already troubled child care system even worse.
Around the country, surveys show 56% of child care providers say they’re losing money every day they stay open and 46% of parents say their current child care situation isn’t sustainable long-term.
But new funding through the American Rescue Plan is supposed to bring the industry back, and those in and out of the business say they need the help now more than ever.
Rachelle Kennedy, owner of Rainforest Academy in Fort Myers, says being a mom comes first.
“I don’t operate this as a business, I operate this as a parent, and what I would want my children to go to,” she said.
Long before she opened the center this year, she had to do a lot on her own as a single mom. She said she wanted to stay home with her daughter, but she had to work to put food on the table.
“I could hardly afford childcare. But I put my daughter in a center due to price. I could afford it,” Kennedy said. “And it was a really poor experience, I pulled her out after about three weeks.”
Now she calls Rainforest Academy her dream come true. She said she was inspired by two people: her grandmother, who used to own a child care center in Arcadia, and another woman who brought Kennedy’s daughter into her center when she needed it most.
“Her name was Miss Gloria, the director, and I sat in her office and I just cried. And just like, I need her to come here,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said she’s seen all sides of the business, and she knows both providers and families need assistance.
“We need resources, we need funding. We need support from our local DCF,” Kennedy said. “Parents need all the help they can get.”
It’s a vicious cycle: care is an expensive operation that many families who need it can’t afford.
According to a 2019 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only one out of every six kids eligible for child care assistance actually receives it.
Overall, about half of American families with young children don’t have access to licensed child care, living in what’s called a child care desert, according to a 2018 study by the Center for American Progress.
That’s all before the pandemic.
“No matter what your income level is, it’s still a chunk of change. It’s almost a mortgage payment for some people,” Kennedy said.
It includes $39 billion, in part to help families better afford childcare through Head Start and help providers cover expenses like payroll, rent and cleaning supplies. Plus, families got a boost in their child tax credit.
Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, who runs the Little Eagles Learning Center and teaches early childhood education at FGCU, said she thinks the plan will help bring the industry back to where it was pre-pandemic, but it won’t solve all the issues it already had then.
She says in this business it’s particularly hard to find qualified help, considering most child care workers are paid less than public school teachers.
“If we charge enough to pay our teachers what they are worth, we charge ourselves out of business,” Elliott said.
She calls the American Rescue Plan a step in the right direction.
“Is there more work to do, yes, but I do think it is very valuable and I do think it is going to help our industry continue to come back,” Elliot said.
As an industry so necessary to keep the country working, both Elliott and Kennedy think child care should be a public resource and funded that way.
“Families cannot sustain themselves, care for a child, and have a job at the same time,” Elliott said.
With that in mind, Kennedy says she does everything she can to keep costs low for her parents. In fact, as own and director of Rainforest Academy, she doesn’t collect paycheck in order to save money for things she considers to be more important.
“Remember the magic school bus?” Kennedy said. “That’s what I want to be like. That teacher. I want the kids to want to be here and have fun.”
Federally the issue of funding child care is largely bi-partisan. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have included dedicated child care relief in every stimulus bill since the beginning of the pandemic. But some critics of Biden’s plan cite too much spending in the wrong ways.