Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, child care centers have continued to close at an alarming rate: one-third of all centers have closed and approximately 100,000 workers have left their jobs since February 2020. These percentages are substantial, particularly for families and children in rural or underserved areas who face a growing lack of access to high-quality programs.
The United States has never had an adequate supply of high-quality child care centers—and the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. With an increased financial strain on providers, many programs closed. Plus, years of undervalued work and staggeringly low wages have forced many early childhood educators to leave the sector entirely.
Between December 2019 and March 2021, a total of 8,899 child care centers closed and 6,957 licensed family child care programs closed, representing a 9% loss in licensed centers and a 10% loss in family care centers.
The early childhood education workforce has always faced substantial recruitment and retention challenges—however, the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. Many child care centers have been forced to shut their doors due to a lack of staffing: As of July 2022, there are 9.6% fewer child care workers in the industry as a whole than before the pandemic.
Poverty-level wages remain one of the primary reasons that workers are leaving the industry. In North Carolina, the median hourly wage for child care workers in North Carolina is just $11.83. A July 2021 study from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found that 78% of respondents identified wages as the main recruitment challenge and 81% said that low wages were a key reason that educators leave the field.
Although demand for child care continues to grow as parents return to work, the child care workforce is not recovering—and child care staffing shortages prevent many programs from staying open. One study found that four out of five center-based survey respondents reported experiencing staffing shortages. Additionally, 83% of respondents from minority-owned programs and 88% of respondents working in programs that serve families who need financial assistance reported staffing shortages.
The impact of workforce shortages is noticeable: 50% of programs are serving fewer children, one-third have a longer waitlist or are unable to open classrooms, and 24% have reduced their hours of operation. Without adequate staffing, child care programs simply cannot accommodate the number of children that they once could, leading to even further financial difficulties.
Affordability and Attendance
Child care tuition is already high. In North Carolina, the average cost of child care is $9,480 per year—or $790 per month and a typical family in North Carolina spends 9.2% of overall household income on child care.
A recent survey discovered that many child care homes are reporting higher enrollment rates than centers—but a lower daily attendance rate. This may indicate that children in these programs are attending part-time or just occasionally. With fewer children attending child care programs—and less staff which lowers overall program capacity—child care centers are seeing a direct impact on their bottom lines.
Although many child care providers operate on razor-thin margins, they typically cannot afford to raise the cost of tuition as it may result in families leaving their program entirely. This vicious cycle creates an unsustainable landscape for child care providers, families, and the greater economy.
To build a stronger North Carolina and Onslow County, early childhood educators need increased access to funding—so they can offer fair wages, health insurance, and be equipped with the tools to expand their programs and serve more children. Child care is an essential key to rebuilding the American economy and it requires a collaborative, comprehensive effort from policymakers, employers, and more.
At One Place, our Child Care Resource and Referral Program educates parents and caregivers on high-quality licensed and regulated early education centers, providing information on available options in Onslow County.
We also provide early childhood educator trainings and support. Learn more here.