Addressing Pennsylvania’s Child-Care Crisis

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Any family will tell you that balancing work and parenting is challenging in the best of times. With the parents of most young children in Pennsylvania working, child care is critical to supporting the Commonwealth’s labor force and employers.

When parents don’t get the child care they need, it diminishes their work commitments, performance, and opportunities – costing Pennsylvania’s economy. This effect is the focus of a new study from the nonprofit ReadyNation and the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission. According to the study, gaps in Pennsylvania’s child-care system are costing families, employers, and taxpayers about $6.65 billion annually in lost earnings, productivity, and tax revenue.

The economic analysis is based on a survey of Pennsylvania working parents with children under age five. Results showed how working parents are struggling with gaps in the child-care system. For example: 60% of parents surveyed reported being late for work, leaving work early, or missing full days of work due to child-care problems, and nearly half reported being distracted at work. About one-third of parents reported that they changed their work schedule from full-time to part-time due to problems with child care. More dramatically, 27% of working parents said they had to quit their job, and 18% have been fired due to child-care struggles.

Comparing these results to similar studies conducted in 2018, we see that parents’ struggle has only gotten harder. Parents reported that child-care problems had caused them to be demoted six times as often in 2022 as in 2018. Child-care availability issues caused parents to have their pay or hours reduced three times as often. Incidents of turning down a new job offer, missing a full day of work, quitting a job, being reprimanded by a supervisor, and being late for work were all reported at least ten percentage points more in 2022 than in 2018. As a result, the economic impact of parents contending with child-care problems has almost doubled, from $3.5 billion in 2018 to $6.65 billion today.

These results underscore the long-standing difficulties that families have with finding and affording high-quality child care throughout the state. Nearly 60% of residents live in a “child-care desert,” defined as an area where there are over three times as many children as licensed child-care slots. Additionally, the average cost of infant/toddler care is almost equal to that of public college tuition, even as less than half of Pennsylvania’s child-care capacity is considered high-quality.

These problems stem from a staffing shortage within the child-care sector driven by low wages. According to a new report from Start Strong PA, the average child-care teacher in Pennsylvania earns $12.43 per hour, or less than $25,844 per year. The report also showed that approximately 21% of staff rely on SNAP benefits and 21% are insured by Medicaid, even though most child-care teachers surveyed have a college education.

The wage crisis is closing child-care classrooms and increasing waitlists for families. A February 2023 survey of more than 1,000 Pennsylvania child-care providers showed that more than 35,500 children currently are on wait lists at these locations because of more than 3,600 open but unfilled staff positions.

Child-care providers stress that they can’t raise teacher wages because families are already struggling to afford the costs of care. Providers also struggle to compete in a labor market with many sectors offering $20+ per hour for largely unskilled positions. Additionally, providers contend with rising rent, utilities, and food costs.

These realities are particularly challenging for providers participating in the state’s subsidized Child Care Works program for low-income families. Historically, these subsidies have not kept pace with the actual cost of providing child care, and, despite recent increases, have not kept ahead of high rates of inflation.

All this speaks to the need for the Commonwealth to take direct action to help child-care providers recruit and retain qualified educators. Direct investment is needed to boost wages for child-care teachers that better reflects the work, experience, and professional degree achievement of these teachers.

Our child-care sector is the “workforce behind the workforce.” Teacher shortages, closed classrooms, and waitlists will continue to harm Pennsylvania families and employers. We can no longer ignore investing in our Commonwealth’s child-care infrastructure.

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