On the bright, clear morning of May 9, over a dozen child care providers, nearly all women of color, gathered on the steps of New York City’s City Hall speaking a mix of English and Spanish. They held signs saying, “Can’t work without childcare” and wearing buttons declaring, “I work in childcare so you can go to work.” It was a Monday morning, when they would normally be receiving young children from their parents’ arms. Instead, they were among the hundreds of providers across 27 states who protested that day by shutting their doors and walking out. They did it to make a point: that the economy can’t function without the underpaid, undervalued work that they do.
This has always been true, and yet the sector has never received enough funding to make it stable. Now, after two devastating years of the pandemic, it is facing an existential cliff. About a third of centers have closed in the past two years, with enrollment down and costs soaring. Amid a robust labor market, providers are struggling to find and retain staff for the poverty-level wages they can afford to pay, and there are 116,000 fewer people employed in the sector than in February 2020.
Some at City Hall had already fallen off the cliff. Flor Leerdam was a child care provider in the Bronx for over 12 years, but she couldn’t reopen after the initial pandemic lockdowns because there weren’t enough children returning to cover her costs. She knows others who will have to close, too, without more funding flowing to the sector. “Los padres tienen que trabajar,” she told the audience, including council staffers who flowed in and out of the doors behind them, sometimes stopping briefly to listen. Parents have to work. “Sin nosotros, no puedan.” Without us, they can’t.
The protest wasn’t just aimed at the mayor and city lawmakers inside the grand, steepled building behind them. The New York State Legislature recently passed a budget that includes an increase of $7 billion for child care spread out over the next four years, but some advocates had been calling for $5 billion this year alone, and the providers at City Hall insisted that they need more. They also aired their frustrations with members of Congress. Although Democrats had initially included $120 billion to help parents afford child care and boost providers’ wages, as well as $60.8 billion for universal preschool, in a massive reconciliation package known as Build Back Better, negotiations are at an impasse, and it’s unclear whether they’ll pass any ongoing funding for the sector.
“The government had the opportunity to give us what we need…while every other industry has gotten a lot more,” said Tiffany Diaz, a family child care provider. “We ask for your support not only verbally but financially.”
Their pleas aren’t falling on entirely deaf ears. Congress may seem, for now, unable to forge an agreement and pass significant funding for the sector. But in the absence of what many had expected would be transformational federal investment, a number of states have recently stepped up to enact long-term and often bold changes. Many lawmakers say their actions are putting them on the path toward a universal child care system.
“Especially in this particular legislative session, there has been significant attention to the issue and then subsequently a lot of movement,” said Stephanie Schmit, director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy. As of mid-February, half of all gubernatorial state of the state addresses mentioned the need to invest in child care and early childhood education. But it’s not just lip service: States have dedicated millions of dollars of their own budgets toward new and ongoing funding for the sector. “The scale of investment is not something that we have seen a lot of previously.”
Providers may be disappointed with the amount New York State lawmakers committed to child care, but there is an increase of $146 million dedicated to child care in this year’s budget, and the larger four-year budget funding increase will allow families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit—about $83,000 for a family of four—to qualify for subsidies, reaching 260,000 more children. It should also allow the state to offer more stabilization grants and higher reimbursement rates to providers. Some lawmakers have promised that the investment is a first step toward creating a universal child care program.
New Mexico is another state pushing toward a universal system. In April, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that the state will offer free care to families that earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty limit—around $111,000 a year for a family of four—for one year. The change means that 30,000 families in the state will get free child care. The money will come from the state’s Early Childhood Education and Care Fund, which is funded with taxes on oil and gas production, although the governor hopes voters will approve a constitutional amendment this fall to allow permanent funding from the Land Grant Permanent Fund. “This is the road to a universal child care system,” she said. “We can and will be first in the country to achieve this incredible goal.” What New Mexico did “is huge,” Schmit said, and not something “that we have been seeing in recent years up until now.”
Other state and local governments are making their own significant investments. Louisiana has expanded access to child care subsidies for parents while increasing how much it pays providers. In his 2022 budget, Governor John Bel Edwards called for tripling state funding for child care subsidies, increasing the number of slots by 1,670 and covering higher subsidies to providers, as well as a $17 million increase in the state’s pre-K program.
Washington, D.C.’s city council voted unanimously in February to send one-time payments of $10,000 to $14,000 to the city’s child care providers, funded by tax dollars levied on the city’s highest earners. A task force will determine how to use the tax money to increase providers’ pay in future years, perhaps by subsidizing part of providers’ paychecks to ensure that their pay is on par with K-12 teachers. “That’s big,” said Anne Hedgepeth, deputy chief of policy at ChildCare Aware of America.
There was a flurry of activity last year, too. Illinois permanently reduced child care subsidy copays for poor families to $1 and capped copays at 7 percent of families’ income for all others while increasing eligibility. It also increased reimbursement rates for providers by 3.5 percent. Washington State similarly reduced copays and expanded eligibility for subsidies while spending money to create more child care supply and increase subsidy rates for providers. Vermont expanded access to subsidies, zeroed out copayments for low-income families, and created new benefits for providers.
“Seeing states of all kinds on the list is a testament to what the past two years have shown us,” Hedgepeth said. The pandemic didn’t just make families acutely aware of how precarious the country’s child care system is; lawmakers were also confronted with that reality when their constituents became angry and energized about it. People have been “loud and persistent,” Schmit said. “There’s a lot more attention on the issue and a lot more movement than we’ve seen pre-pandemic.”
Organized and vocal protests have already led directly to change, as in Connecticut, where child care providers staged a statewide walkout for two hours the morning of March 15, the inspiration for the national day of action in May. Georgia Goldburn, who runs the Hope Child Development Center in New Haven, kept her doors open during nearly the entire pandemic to serve the children of essential workers. “I saw the sacrifice that the providers who remained open took and the risks that they assumed for their families and themselves,” she said. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has visited with her and other providers multiple times to “tell us how much he appreciates us and how much he values us,” she said. In this year’s State of the State address, he told child care workers to “take a bow” and said he was proud of them and other essential workers who “put their communities ahead of themselves.”
And then the governor released his 2022 budget without any extra money for child care. It was “beyond insulting,” Goldburn said. “I was angry. I was beyond angry.” She dashed off an e-mail to a child care provider LISTSERV saying the budget was a slap in the face and calling for a walkout. She got a flood of support in response. “People were so frustrated, people were so hurt and devastated by what the governor did, that there were many people who felt like enough is enough.”
The idea at first was to have a full-day walkout, but a lot of providers feared a backlash from parents who had already dealt with so many Covid shutdowns, so they organized a morning without child care instead. The organizers say there were 10 rallies involving over 1,400 people. It was a first in the state. “I do not know of another time when child care programs closed down,” said Merrill Gay, executive director of the CT Early Childhood Alliance.
Afterward, Lamont signed a budget that includes about $100 million in new funding for child care. Goldburn sees a direct line between that day of action and the new money for child care.
“We’ve been saying we cannot do this without money and we continue to do it without money, so people don’t take us seriously,” she said. It was time to act. “Every single time we go and ask for what we think we can get. This time we’re going to ask for what we need and we’re not going to take no for an answer. And we’re going to have to do what is necessary to follow through on our ask.”
Child care providers haven’t gone on strike en masse on a nationwide scale in recent history. But the idea of a national strike has been “circling around for a while” among child care providers and advocates, said Wendoly Marte, director of economic justice at Community Change, which spearheaded the May 9 actions. After the work they had all put into trying to push Congress to pass the Build Back Better investments, only to watch negotiations stall out, “there’s just a lot of frustration,” she said. “Folks wanted to do something that communicated that frustration for elected officials and the public.”
In the end, the day was “definitely bigger than we had anticipated,” Marte said. They staged over 60 actions, and more than 300 child care providers around the country closed their doors and walked out.
Kelly Jones was one of them. She’s run Love Your Child’s Care Childcare in Indianapolis, Ind., since 2008 out of her late grandmother’s home. It’s always been a financial struggle. She gave birth to her son on a Sunday in 2011 and had to be back in a classroom on Thursday. She earns so little that she’s still paying off her student loans and can’t afford to renovate the building to add more space to care for more children. “I have a lot of people calling for child care, but I have nowhere to put them,” she said. She’s done side work like DoorDash to make ends meet. The industry is “broken,” she said, when she can’t offer much more than minimum wage. She wants to leave the business to her daughter, “but she’s like, ‘No thanks.’” Young people don’t want to enter an industry that offers so little. “I want to pay those teachers,” she said. “I want paid vacations. I want the benefits that a construction worker is capable of having.”
Then at the start of the pandemic she had to shut down for six weeks, and when she opened back up she had just one child enrolled for two months. She only got back to her full capacity of 12 kids in April. “We do great work. I know all my children that leave my program [are] ready for kindergarten,” she said. “But I’ve had nights where I just cry myself to sleep because I’m like, ‘Nobody cares.’”
She’s long been ready to take bold action. “I have been saying that major change needs to occur,” she said. “I’ve been chanting that we need a strike.”
Shineal Hunter also closed her doors on May 9. She is a “fourth-generational child care provider,” as she calls herself, following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. She’s owned Family Circle Academy in Philadelphia, Pa., since 2008. When the pandemic hit she was serving 87 children and had 12 employees. But to protect her staff—many of whom are her own family members—she decided to close until this past October. Reopening has “been a slow, gradual climb,” she said. She’s down to a staff of three, including herself, and just 10 kids. Families found care elsewhere, and she’s lost staff that she can’t afford to bring back without higher enrollment. “It’s taken a significant toll,” she said. “Daily I deal with the struggle of do I keep my doors open or not.”
She was immediately on board with the national day of action, but at first thought she would just do a delayed open. But when she talked to her employees and her parents, they all urged her to shut down for the day. “Everybody said, ‘We have the opportunity to do this, let’s do it 100 percent,’” she said. “We made the decision together.” She not only agreed, but rallied others to do the same, going door to door to talk to other providers, getting over 20 to agree to join her. They staged a rally at their city hall and then brought families back for a block party.
Not all of her parents were happy, but “the majority of parents really understood,” she said. She often shares with them how difficult the business is and what it really costs to provide care. Parents joined her at both the rally and the block party. “We can’t do one without the other. Parents can’t go to work if they don’t have child care, I can’t come to work as a child care provider if I don’t have kids,” she said. “We’re in this together.”
It might seem that parents would be outraged that, after two long years of chaos and disruptions, child care providers voluntarily shut down for a day. But the child care providers I spoke with said they worked hard to bring parents along, to make it clear that they are fighting for their needs, too, and ask them to stand in solidarity. Many have.
Queens resident Nancy Michael brought her three young children to the May 9 press conference outside New York’s City Hall. “Child care is an ongoing issue,” she told those assembled. There have been times when she’s traveled hours to get her children to a child care she could afford so that she could go to work. Times when she had to quit working because she couldn’t afford it. “If the state had universal child care, our lives would be so different,” she said.
Parents attended the Connecticut actions, too. “When we decided we were going to take this action, we knew also that…it wasn’t just for ourselves. It was about the parents,” Goldburn said. Goldburn held a meeting to explain the action to her parents, expecting a flood of angry and stressed-out people. Instead, the few who showed up asked how they could support it.
“Parents are becoming more aware,” said Shanita Bowen, who ran a home-based child care in the Bronx for 17 years before she had to permanently close her doors during the pandemic. She is now is working as an advocate. Parents and providers are “fighting this fight together.”
Even with a desire to do more, states can only go so far on their own. Many have recently made significant changes with money from the American Rescue Plan, the Covid rescue package passed by Democrats on a party line in early 2021, but the money is temporary, and without more federal funding the changes are likely to disappear. “I’m nervous about what’s going to happen in a year or two years when those resources give out if we don’t get additional federal investment,” Schmit said. Meanwhile, many states “don’t have additional resources or the political will to pass state investments in child care on their own.”
Childcare providers promise that they aren’t going to let up until they secure the long-term funding the sector needs to stay solvent. The providers and advocates who organized the Day Without Childcare are clear that May 9 was just the first of many actions to come. It’s “phase one,” Marte said. They’re hoping to continue to hold large-scale protests and events to keep the pressure on lawmakers at all levels. “It is so clear that the economy runs on child care,” Marte said. “It’s time that we actually make public policy that resembles that truth.”
“They’re either going to make massive changes or massive investments in early childhood education, or we’re going to keep closing it down,” Kelly Jones said.