Shapiro’s investment into childcare doesn’t address its workforce issues, industry leaders say
The Shapiro administration unveiled a billion-dollar vision for the Commonwealth. For those in the childcare industry, it sounded like more of the same.
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Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro released his tentative fiscal plan ahead of his administration on Tuesday, March 8, with plans to issue billions of dollars across sectors of the Commonwealth’s workforce and families on the low-income spectrum.
For childcare providers, Shapiro’s vision for the ever-waning industry spelled out more of the same stagnancy that has kept wages low for caretakers and wounding the workforce as inflation accelerates and the demand for childcare services increases, according to industry leaders.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have yet to meet, convene committees, and debate until the $66.7 million in childcare funding is approved for the incoming fiscal year, but one thing Shapiro’s budget address left unclear is whether childcare providers will see any financial relief.
Budgeting, but for whom?
The cash flow can be looked at in two ways. In last year’s budget proposal, signed by former Governor Tom Wolf, $25 million was injected into state funding “that allowed families to stay in the subsidized system up until 300% of poverty,” explained Diane Barber, who is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Childcare Association, or PACA. a statewide campaign stemming from Start Strong PA, focusing on childcare.
Meaning that, by raising the poverty threshold, there was leeway for families to qualify for the federal poverty guidelines, and “it gave them more of a buffer between what they were earning and then any kind of new money that their employer might be giving them,” said Barber, explaining how parents are weary of accepting raises for fear that it might disqualify them from subsidies.
This came in addition to another $90 million approved for other workforce grants to be distributed across municipalities.
“We also know that there are some families, just because of the childcare and because of the childcare subsidy that they receive, turned down raises because then it kicks them off the system,” Barber continued.
Shapiro’s budget, in that sense, accounts for access to service but doesn’t address the underbelly looming over the childcare crisis — which includes strikingly low wages for workers and the ability to hire and retain staff, accounting for the second approach to the proposal.
“I have a mixed reaction,” said Barber of her impression after listening to Shapiro’s remarks.
“Anytime we can invest date money into childcare, it's a good thing. And anytime that we can expand access for families is a good thing.”
But, Barber said, “the challenge is that we have no place for them to go.” To date, there are over 3,000 low-income families on the Commonwealth’s waitlist.
The work doesn’t pay
A study by Children First PA, an advocacy group focusing on child care, among other things, found that the early childhood workforce makes $12 on average, and earners — in 100% of the Pennsylvania counties — failed to meet the cost of living standard.
“I've been very fortunate enough to keep all my classrooms open,” said Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez, the owner of two childcare centers in South Philly and founder of a Latino consulting firm.
In March of this year, however, Alvarado-Rodriguez told AL DÍA she is “faced with a decision to close down one class. I'm gonna displace 20 children because my teachers were burned out, and they resigned.”
Childcare workers billing through government subsidies saw some relief this year after Shapiro announced an increase in base payment rates via the Department of Human Services to adjust for the pandemic and the inflation that followed.
Still, the pace at which the economy developed was one that childcare wages found it near-impossible to keep up with.
“We need programs, there's a lot of programs that have closed down and are still closed,” said Alvarado-Rodriguez.
“There are a lot of families still trying to find childcare space, or there are a lot of centers that are closing down their classrooms because their teachers because of the teacher turnover,” she added.
And strict guidelines within the childcare space also limit options for providers who may consider adjusting classroom sizes, so there is little logistical flexibility for childcare operators to explore, given turnover rates.
“It's a really challenging business model,” said Barber.
“We've had some very good conversations with new [members of the State House.] And so one of the things that we've been waiting for is for at least the house to flesh out or to fill their committee positions. So we can also begin to talk to them too,” said Barber of the incoming plans of PACA.
“We’ll be advocating for a package that includes that looks at the compensation of the early childhood workforce. We have all of this data that says we have to do that. And so that's what we'll continue to do.”
Asked about her impression of the budget address, Alvarado-Rodriguez called it “disappointing.”