A question I am often asked is, “why is child care so expensive, if child care teachers are paid so little?” The child care crisis in the Richmond region very much mirrors that of the nation – spots for kids are scarce and often incredibly expensive. At the same time, compensation is so low that these facilities cannot find enough staff members, forcing programs and facilities to run below capacity. Given how key early childhood education is for both working parents and child development, it is important to understand the structural pressures causing this failing system, and where we go from here.
As I explained in a recent Washington Post piece:
“One fundamental that predates the pandemic and its ripple effects is the cost of doing business in a highly constrained industry. In most states, for instance, one teacher is permitted under the law to care for a maximum of six to eight toddlers. Personnel eats up 70 percent or more of program budgets. So even though parents are paying through the nose, the true cost of care — the cost where programs are operating comfortably and compensating their staff well — is so high that programs would take a loss on each kid. As it stands, programs already have to cut wages to the bone just to keep the lights on. To keep pace with other industries, their only option (other than public funding or closure) is massively raising prices — hence, [child care may become] a luxury good. The U.S. Treasury Department has called the child-care business model “unworkable.”
In Virginia, the median wage of a child care worker is $10.96 an hour. That rate is far below a living wage for Virginia, and drives significant turnover among child care workers. Teacher to child ratios – which ensure safety and quality — are 1:4 for infants (i.e., 1 teacher for every 4 infants), 1:5 for kids between sixteen months and two years, 1:8 for two-year-olds, and 1:10 for three- and four-year-olds. When you consider the diminishing number of child care workers compared to the number of children who need care, you begin to see the problem. This is why most of metro Richmond is considered to be a “child care desert.”
The staffing shortages are making an already difficult-to-locate resource close to impossible. This summer, I helped Smart Beginnings-Greater Richmond and a coalition of other early childhood partners put out a survey to local child care providers. As reported in the Virginia Mercury in June, the survey “found that — of the 26 child care programs they’ve reached so far — 85 percent reported staffing shortages. In total, there were 114 open teaching positions across all of the facilities.” This represents only a sliver of the programs in the region, and by all reports, shortages have only grown worse since then.
Help may be on the way in the form of the federal government’s Build Back Better package, which contains considerable levels of permanent funding for child care and pre-K. However, even if that legislation passes, there will be a tremendous amount of work to do in order to implement the new system well. Staff will need to be recruited, facilities upgraded, and an administrative infrastructure put into place that allows parents to easily access choices which meet their needs and preferences. None of these elements will be swift or simple. And if the legislation does not pass, there will be all the more need for local and state governments to step up.
Robins Foundation stands ready to support these efforts. Our priorities include directly supporting high-quality child care programs and the nonprofits that work to generate that local infrastructure, supporting the advocacy and policy work to ensure that the laws impacting the Richmond region are strong and fair, and supporting parents of young children in accessing the services that are available to them to be the best possible ‘first teacher’ for their children.
This is a moment of both uncertainty and possibility for Richmond’s young children and their families. We must meet the moment with conviction and clear-eyed vision for both the short- and long-term. If we succeed, we can positively change the trajectory of our region’s future and the lives of its children.