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Mckell James first applied for child care in October 2019, five months before her oldest son was born. She got on a half dozen wait lists, but it took two years to get off just one. And that spot, while coveted, was only for two days of care each week. The Salt Lake City, Utah, family took it anyway, falling into a dizzying juggling act the other three days, with James, 35, and her husband, Corper James, 51, balancing their full-time jobs while watching their toddler.

Mckell James (left), her husband, stepdaughter and two sons live in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they have been waiting on multiple waitlists to access child care. Credit: Image provided by Mitch Meyer

In the spring of 2022, after enduring a string of 10-day quarantines, James, a human resources director, and her husband, an employment attorney, decided to pull their son out of child care to try to keep the family healthy before the birth of their second child. Now, both children are on monthslong waitlists at four child care centers with no end in sight. When James had to return to work at the end of the summer, she and her husband hired a nanny for two days a week. At $25 an hour, the bill for part-time help nearly equals the cost of their monthly mortgage. The other three days, she and her husband split care of their sons.

“At the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Did I really do anything?’,” James said on a recent afternoon as she took a late lunch break while her 2-year-old napped and her 4-month-old happily squealed in the background. “I did everything and nothing and I don’t feel like I did anything fully right, because you’re spread so thin.”

Although most offices and schools have reopened, the pandemic is still hurting child care and after-school programs. Parents face daunting wait lists. Child care centers, which already operated on thin margins before the pandemic, are shuttering classrooms and capping enrollment numbers because of severe teacher shortages and a lack of funding.

“We knew the pandemic put a huge strain on a system that was already strained, so this is just a continuous struggle that’s been made worse,” said Nina Perez, the early childhood national campaign director for MomsRising, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on supporting policies that help women, mothers and families.

The shortage of spaces means that some parents are still shut out of careers and losing income. Others have uprooted their lives and moved closer to family to receive more help. Still more are struggling to take care of their kids while working from home. Perez said the situation in recent months has become so tenuous that parents have told her they are taking out loans for child care or considering unsafe arrangements, like leaving young children alone for periods of time or with frail elderly family members.

In a late summer U.S. Census Bureau survey of households, more than 365,000 adults reported losing a job because they needed to take time to care for children under the age of 5 in the four weeks preceding the survey. More than 1.3 million responded that an adult in the household left a job to care for children. More than 1.6 million supervised one or more children while working.

A sign advertising positions at a preschool in Austin, Texas. Some centers have reported wait lists as large as 1,500 children due to staffing shortages that are keeping classrooms closed. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Making sure parents can work and provide for their children is critical to the economy and for many aspects of society, experts say. Parents with minor children make up almost one-third of the workforce and work disproportionately in fields like retail, education, health care, and social assistance, according to a report by the Brookings Institute.

Yet child care is still largely seen as a personal problem for families — and especially women — rather than a social benefit that supports the younger generations who will eventually sustain many aspects of society. For many families across the country, child care is not publicly funded, unlike K-12 education. Advocates and educators had hoped the federal government would provide permanent financial help through President Joe Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan. The bill would have provided money to stabilize the child care industry by boosting the pay of early childhood educators and helping to lower costs for families. But the child care funding was cut from the federal legislation in August. Many child care centers continue to struggle, often unable to pay staff a living wage or even find enough workers to fully open classrooms.

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In Wisconsin, Kari Zimbric, 41, a nurse practitioner and mother of six, had to quit a job she was passionate about last year because of a lack of child care. Zimbric signed her twins, now 21 months old, up for child care more than six months before they were born in 2021. Zimbric hadn’t run into many challenges finding care for her four older children, but finding care during the pandemic has been an entirely different experience. “No one had space for even one infant, let alone two,” Zimbric said. “Finding a daycare for twins right now is pretty much an impossible task.”

Without available center-based care, Zimbric and her husband, Luke Zimbric, an engineer, hired a nanny to provide part-time care while Zimbric worked part-time as well. When the nanny quit for another position, the family “panicked and scrambled,” she said. To get at least some temporary help, they hired a college student who was home for the summer. But soon, the stress of trying to find in-home help was too much. When the twins were 6 months old, Zimbric quit her job to stay home full time. “It was really hard,” she said. “I had a job I loved.” As a single-income household, the family has had to budget carefully and cut back on extras, like putting money into their kids’ education accounts.

Eventually, Zimbric needs to go back to work, at least part time. One local center said it might have room for the twins in the summer of 2023, when they will be 2 years old. But Zimbric is bracing herself for the possibility that she may not be able to get her job back.  “I may have to take something different in order to make this all work,” she said.

A teacher works with toddlers in a Colorado child care center. Staffing shortages have led many child care centers to cap enrollment numbers in order to abide by state staff-to-child ratio requirements. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Child care spots were already scare before the pandemic. As of late 2018, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that about half the neighborhoods in the  country qualified as  “child care deserts,” areas where three children compete for each available child care spot at a licensed center. A 2020 report found that there were only enough licensed child care slots to provide care for 23 percent of infants and toddlers.

And if parents can find a spot, they may not be able to afford it. Nationwide, the average cost of licensed center-based care is $1,300 a month for an infant and nearly $900 a month for a preschooler. More than half of parents with children under the age of 15 spend 20 percent or more of their household income on child care. And that cost has increased over the past few years, by an average of 41 percent.

All states offer programs that can subsidize the cost of child care for low-income families. But those programs also have lengthy waitlists and they often don’t fully reimburse providers for the actual cost of that care which, in some states, can be more than $30,000 a year for infant care. That leaves families to make up the difference or providers to absorb the cost.

During the pandemic, federal aid was a lifeline for child care centers, but it didn’t address the industry’s problematic business model. During the past two years, 16,000 child care programs nationwide closed, a 9 percent decline in licensed providers. Nearly 90,000 people left the child care industry between February 2020 and August 2022, with another 2,000 leaving between August and September this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As other industries raised wages to attract workers, many child care centers lost teachers to jobs in fast food restaurants or stores like Target, some of which offer benefits and starting salaries several dollars an hour higher than the average child care wage of $13.31 an hour. With limited state and federal aid, and tuition as the main source of income, many providers can’t raise teacher wages without putting a greater financial burden on parents.

Related: The child care worker shortage is reaching crisis proportions nationally. Could Milwaukee provide the answer?

“We can’t compete with McDonalds offering $15 to $17 an hour to start out,” said Toni Dickerson, a resource and referral administrator for Sussex Preschools, a network of five child care centers in Delaware. “Pre-Covid we were more worried about getting qualified staff. Now, we’re just trying to get staff.”

At Beach Babies Child Care, which runs four centers across Delaware, with a fifth slated to open soon, owner Sean Toner estimates that as many as 80 additional children could be served by his centers if he had enough staff to fill classrooms that are currently closed because of teacher shortages. Staffing “has always been an issue, but it’s never been exacerbated to the point it is right now,” he said.

In the meantime, the waitlist for a spot at one of his centers has ballooned to 1,500 kids. “It was never like this,” he said. “There’s not enough child care in this area to serve the need.”

An empty classroom at one of Sean Toner’s child care centers in Delaware. Without enough teachers, Toner has had to close classrooms like this one that could be serving children. He currently has 1,500 children on his wait list. Credit: Image provided by Sean Toner

Dickerson, the referral administrator, fields 20 to 30 calls each day from parents. The need is especially acute for infants, she said, noting that two other infant programs in the area closed during the pandemic. But without enough staff, only one of Sussex Preschool’s four infant rooms is open. Instead of serving 32 infants, the network only has room for eight. While there are many home-based programs nearby that Dickerson refers parents to, those programs have a smaller capacity than centers.

After-school programs have also reported rising expenses and staff shortages. Half of after-school and summer programs surveyed in the spring of 2022 by the non-profit advocacy group Afterschool Alliance reported having a waitlist. Many providers said staffing challenges and increased costs for supplies and food have driven up the cost of their programs. Sixty percent of parents surveyed said the cost of programs was the top reason for not enrolling their child in afterschool care. Nearly 40 percent said there were no spaces available in their preferred program.

Parents are sacrificing to fill that gap between the end of the school day and the end of traditional working hours. Emily Milbauer and her husband, Mark Milbauer, were stunned to find out the cost for a few hours of afterschool care each day would be nearly as much as her daughter’s full time pre-K tuition in Denver, Colorado. Milbauer works full time as an administrator for a local child care center. Her husband, who was driving for Lyft after getting laid off from an office job in the marijuana industry in 2021, promptly stopped searching for a full-time job and arranged his schedule to be able to pick their 5-year-old up each day.

Their income suffers. “If there’s a day off from school or something, he doesn’t make any money,” Milbauer said.

Empty cribs sit in a closed infant classroom at a child care center in Texas. Many parents say infant child care spots are among the hardest to come by now. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

For Haley Johnson, a mother of two in New Mexico, afterschool care for her two children at their elementary school would have cost nearly $40 an hour, one and a half times her hourly wage as an interior designer. Instead, Johnson gives up 10 hours of income each week to pick up her children at 3 p.m., when their school day ends.

This is the second time since Johnson became a mother that child care has meant sacrificing a paycheck. Ten years ago, she left the workforce when her first child was born after realizing she would bring in only about $200 a month after paying for child care. Johnson considers herself lucky that she was able to get back into the workforce after five years at home. “When a parent has to make the decision to stay home because financially you can’t afford [care], there’s more things you lose,” she said. In addition to mental health struggles that can come with quitting work to stay home, “you lose the financial side, you lose the gain in your knowledge, in your career, and your connections,” she said. “Predominately, women are suffering through that.”

But the child care shortage is more than just a family issue. Child care challenges for parents and caregivers in the workforce cost the economy an estimated $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue, according to a 2019 report from ReadyNation, a consortium of business executives who advocate for workforce policies. Productivity problems associated with child care issues cost employers $12.7 billion annually.

Related: The racist and sexist roots of child care in America explain why the system is in shambles

Parents say they want more funding for the child care sector to increase pay and capacity at centers, the return of the monthly child tax credit that could help offset some of the costs, family leave policies, especially after the birth of a child, and government subsidies to help pay for care. Permanent change largely depends on Congress, although President Biden has said he would like to make the tax credit permanent, and some lawmakers have called for more federal child care funding.

In the absence of federal action, some states are stepping up. In Virginia, a new formula went into effect this month that will reimburse providers for the full cost of caring for children who receive state subsidies, rather than paying them a market rate that may be far below the actual cost. The state is also slated to establish new copayment rates for families early next year, which could save families several hundred dollars each year. In California, a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month will make it easier for low-income families to enroll in state-funded preschool and subsidized child care. And in New Mexico, voters this year will consider a ballot initiative that will permanently fund early childhood in the state, providing more than $1 billion to the system over the next eight years. The state also recently announced a new grant that will help raise early educator pay to a minimum of $15 an hour in an attempt to recruit and retain more teachers.

During the past two years, 16,000 child care programs nationwide closed, a 9 percent decline in licensed providers.

That doesn’t negate the need for federal investment, however, said Elliot Haspel, a senior fellow at Capita, a think tank focused on children and families. “As school funding has shown us, you quickly get huge inequities if you rely purely on the states. This will ultimately need to have a federal solution.”

Employers could also offer work-from-home arrangements and flexible schedules, as well as more paid time off, said Maura Mills, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s college of business who studies work-life balance. Many businesses have failed to step up to continue supporting working parents, even when school systems adopt virtual days and child care programs still require quarantines, keeping parents at home.  “Employers haven’t adopted [policies] accordingly,” Mills said. “We don’t have more personal days. They’ve taken a lot of work-from- home options away,” she added. “It’s just an impossible bind for parents. It’s just untenable.”

In Salt Lake City, James wakes up around 7:30 a.m. and nurses her baby while answering emails, often with one hand. She takes calls and completes work between wrangling her toddler and caring for her infant. She often catches up on work in the evenings when her children are asleep. “It’s exhausting and hard to feel accomplished, that you’re doing either one great,” she said.

She worries that if her job requires her to go in person more than the one day a week she’s currently managing, she’ll be forced to find a different position that allows for more flexibility. Whatever job she takes, her paycheck has to cover child care. The family is eventually looking at a cost of $2,400 a month total just for part-time center-based care for both boys — if the children ever get off the waitlist. Ultimately, she said, state and federal governments need to step up. “We all need to do more to be family focused,” she said. “If the government really does care about families and care about future generations, put your money where your mouth is.”

This story about finding child care was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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