Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 400,000 parents in North Carolina struggled to find child care. Now, more than one year into the pandemic, families in Onslow County and beyond face astronomical child care costs, growing child care deserts, and difficulty identifying safe and affordable options for their children.
Child care is both a vital and fragile ecosystem that empowers parents to work, build family stability, and support a vibrant state economy. But the broken infrastructure of the American child care system has become increasingly apparent in light of the pandemic and has created a detrimental cycle: early childhood educators can’t afford to stay open—and families can’t afford to pay tuition.
Public investment in child care is necessary for a robust economic recovery and an equitable future for families. On April 15th, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the American Rescue Plan: $39 billion in funding to address the child care crisis caused by COVID-19. North Carolina will receive more than $500,000 in flexible funding for child care development to help increase access to affordable, high-quality care, and $800,000 in child care stabilization funding to help existing child care providers reopen or stay open. This assistance will help provide a safe, healthy learning environment for children nationwide and pave the way for parents to return to the workforce.
The True Cost of Child Care
In a study from The Center for American Progress, the average national cost to provide center-based child care is $1,230 per month. For home-based care, the average cost is $800 per month. In no state does the cost of a center-based child care program meet the federal guidelines of affordability—no more than 7 percent of annual household income—and Onslow County is no exception with families spending an average of 21 percent of their income on child care.
Additionally, options for early child care are extremely limited. In April 2020, 68 percent of families in Onslow County lived in a child care desert—a community where there are too few child care slots to meet demand. In areas where child care slots are available, many families with young children cannot afford to enroll. For families with only one income or those working minimum wage jobs, the struggle to find high-quality child care is even more acute. What many families pay in tuition does not necessarily equal high-quality child care.
Affordable child care not only impacts families and educators but the economic backbone of North Carolina as a whole. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies found that North Carolina families, businesses, and the economy were already losing $2.4 billion annually due to a lack of affordable and high-quality child care. In the wake of the pandemic, annual losses due to lack of child care options are now at $2.9 billion a year and growing.
Child Care Subsidies
North Carolina’s child care subsidy programs help to cover some of the costs of licensed early childhood care for approximately 72,000 children each month. While these are remarkable numbers, this federal- and state-funded program still falls short of serving all children in need.
As of April 2019, more than 38,000 children were on the waitlist for a subsidy, although many more are likely eligible for the program based on income and parental work status. Due to differences in how each county coordinates waitlists and promotes the program to eligible families, NC PolicyWatch estimates that North Carolina is only serving approximately 10 percent of those eligible.
In Onslow County, however, the landscape is a bit different: Data from February 2021 revealed that the county serves 1,215 children through child care subsidy programs and currently has 0 children on the waiting list. An estimated only 5 percent of Onslow County children participate in the state-subsidized child care offerings.
With the support of the American Rescue Plan, it is possible that more subsidies will be available to families. The Biden-Harris administration announced the funding will provide direct subsidies to more than 800,000 families nationwide earning 85% below state median income and to those who perform essential work.
From the research and what we see on a daily basis in Onslow County, the cost of child care is simply exorbitant—and not working toward the best interests of either families or early educators. To ensure the industry can move past its shaky position in the American landscape, policymakers must take immediate action—and the American Rescue Plan is a critical step in paving the way for a nationwide economic recovery and a stronger future for the child care ecosystem.
At One Place, our Child Care Resource and Referral Program educates parents and caregivers on high-quality licensed and regulated early education providers, supplying information on available options in Onslow County. We also provide early educator trainings and support.
To learn more, click here: https://www.oneplaceonslow.org/for-parents-and-early-educators/