Where will all our children go?

(The second in a series on the lack of child care in Columbia County)

GHENT—Investing in early childhood development is a winning strategy. Neglecting child care is costly. To date, the county is on the losing side.

The Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman has written that “Our economic future depends on providing the tools for upward mobility and building a highly educated, skilled workforce. Early childhood education is the most efficient way to accomplish these goals.”

Professor Heckman’s research found that quality preschool programs (especially those focused on infants and toddlers) returned from 7% to 13% per year on the investments made in them, based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures.

Further, childcare generates gains in parental education, workforce participation and family income, which in turn enhances the viability of businesses and the general economy. With increased parental income, tax revenues rise.

How invested in childcare is Columbia County? To date, not very well.

Childcare is not a monolith. The state recognizes three main types of care. As Suzanne Holdridge of Family of Woodstock, Inc. (Family) which operates Child Care Connections explains, there are three modalities of legal (state registered or licensed) day care.

“Family Day Care” (FDC) is provided in a home for up to 8 children (2 of whom may be of school age), staffed by a single provider. “Group Family Day Care” (GFC) is also provided in a home and can serve up to 16 children (4 of whom may be of school age). A provider and an assistant must staff the program.

“Day Care Centers” (DCC) must be located in non-residential buildings. Each age group must have its own classroom and a different child-to-adult ratio applies to each age group. Head Start programs that promote school readiness for children from low-income families aged 3-5 are considered day care centers.

Family care is less expensive to provide, mainly because it is held in the provider’s home.

The licensed or registered programs in the county are shown in the accompanying chart.

The numbers, however, can be deceptive; an informal survey conducted by Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood found that the licensed capacity of facilities in the county far exceeds the actual number of slots in operation—nearly two-fold in the case of day care centers and six-fold in the case of group family day care facilities.

The shortage is greatest for infant and toddler care (0-3), a group that represents two-thirds of the care-seekers and that is the most important age group according to educators, and for non-traditional times (nights, weekends), according to a needs assessment study conducted in 2022 by Family, which operates services in Columbia County.

Family’s Aisha Hart and Teresa Lewis both recently testified at a hearing held by the state Senate Standing Committee on Children and Families. They reported that in Columbia County there are approximately 918 children 0-2 years old, and only 79 slots in operation in legal day care for them; there are 1,477 children aged 2 to 4 and only 481 slots; and there is not a single slot for non-traditional hours, so that those who work nights or weekends have no possibility of finding care.

As reported last week, even the slots that are in operation are all occupied, so that a parent seeking daycare is most unlikely to find it without a protracted wait, and then, the cost may be unaffordable, especially for a family of two working parents who may not qualify for a state subsidy.

What are the causes of this crisis? Principally, three factors. First, the cost of delivering child care is high because appropriate space for day care centers is pricey and hard to find; state regulations mandate certain levels of staffing—which, while appropriate, are also expensive; and, subsidies are only available at certain family income levels. (The state recently increased these levels significantly to ameliorate this problem).

Programs cannot find or retain staff because child care providers are underpaid. Considering that child care is a foundational service for the economy and the healthy development of children, the fact is that child care providers make less than 97% of all other professions in the Capital Region, according to the State Department of Labor.

The child care workforce is mainly women (96%) and persons of color (more than 50%), who are paid so poorly that they live in poverty at more than twice the rate of the state’s workers in general, according to the Schuyler Center.

Yet, the profit margins in child care are so thin that centers cannot afford to pay their staff more. According to Suzanne Holdridge of Family, a typical Columbia County center receives about $4 per hour per child served.

Finally, the regulation of all types of centers and of subsidies for parents is complicated, dissuading potential applicants from seeking licensing and even subsidies.

The bi-partisan group Council for a Strong America issued a report recently concluding that “the nation’s infant-toddler child care crisis now costs $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue every year.” That sum includes caregivers who miss or are late to work due to child care issues, foregone earnings and tax revenue not received because of lost earnings. On top of these impacts, according to the study, the crisis “damages the future workforce by depriving children of nurturing, stimulating environments that support healthy brain development while their parents work.”

Local and state efforts to address the crisis will be the subject of next week’s article.

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