Child Care in Crisis: Connecticut’s Cautionary Tale

This blog was written by Jessica Sager as part of Child Care NOW’s guest blog series.
At the National Women’s Law Center gala last week, Elizabeth Warren spoke from the heart about the critical importance of child care and its impact on her own life.  As a child care advocate, I was both moved and saddened by her speech, as I reflected on the challenges children and families face in my own state of Connecticut.
I am the founder and CEO of All Our Kin, an organization that works to create and sustain high-quality home-based child care programs for families that desperately need access to care. These families rely on vouchers to help them pay for the care that we create. However, recent changes to the federal Child Care Development Block Grant, combined with our state’s budget deficit, have led to a crisis in funding that severely limits families’ access to vouchers. The consequences are devastating: child care programs are closing, working parents are making impossible choices between their job and their children’s healthy growth and development, and thousands of children are missing out on important early learning opportunities.
Connecticut’s is a cautionary tale; as an early adopter of new federal regulations, we are already seeing the impact of inadequate funding on our early childhood ecosystem. By 2018, most states in the country will face the same harsh realities. We must act quickly to ensure that families nationwide are not stripped of the critical support they need to access early care and education.
In Connecticut, two full-time working parents earning state minimum wage will make a gross salary of $42,016 per year; the average cost of child care for an infant and a preschooler is more than $20,000 per year. Child care vouchers make it possible for thousands of children in these low-income families to attend licensed child care programs that meet safety and quality standards, thereby allowing thousands of parents to participate in the workforce.
However, since August of last year, Care4Kids, Connecticut’s voucher program, has been closed to new working families. Without Care4Kids, many parents find themselves choosing between leaving the workforce or placing their children in unlicensed, unregulated care. Child care providers are struggling to stay open in the face of dwindling enrollment. And, of course, those most affected are our youngest children, who, at a critical time in their development, are losing access to safe, high-quality early care and learning experiences.
Care4Kids has been closed to the majority of new families for more than a year. Over that time, Connecticut lost 11,914 Care4Kids slots—that means that 11,914 less children are currently being served by the voucher program than were being served before the program closure. This is more than a 50 percent decrease in the number of children being served. For our youngest children, the impact is most severe: 52 percent of the slots lost since August 2016 are infant and toddler slots.
Soon after Care4Kids closed to new working families, we surveyed our network of home-based child care providers to assess the impact. Just months after the program closed, 69 percent of our family child care providers reported having to cut back on household expenses as their income declined. Fifty-five percent of child care providers knew parents who had to turn down a job offer because they could not afford care, while 56 percent knew families who chose to enroll their children in unlicensed care.
“Parents and providers can’t survive like this,” Jacqueline Almanzar, a family child care provider with nineteen years of experience in early childhood education, told us. While Jacqueline’s program typically operates at full capacity, she is now down to two full-time children. “This is the worst I’ve seen things since starting my child care business. Every week, I get calls from parents who need care, but they can’t afford it without Care4Kids.”
Many child care providers are doing everything they can to help parents access care, even significantly lowering their rates or caring for children for free. But it’s not sustainable. Child care providers need to be able to support themselves and their families, and providing high-quality early care and education is expensive. Connecticut’s child cares—both centers and home-based programs—are closing; child care center closures increased by 55 percent in 2016-2017, compared to the previous year.
The damage that we are doing to our state’s economy, its infrastructure, and its residents will not quickly be undone. Child care programs that took years to build will disappear. Parents will lose jobs. And children’s health, safety, and development will suffer.
We know the solution to this crisis: a fully funded Child Care and Development Block Grant. This is not a Connecticut problem—lack of investment in an early childhood system that meets the needs of all working families is a national problem that requires national leadership. In Connecticut, we’ve seen the results of doing nothing. The good news is that we have the opportunity to turn things around. It’s time for Congress to take immediate action to fully fund the Child Care and Development Block Grant so that parents can work, children can learn, and child care providers can support families with high-quality care.
**We are happy to report that since the publishing of this post, Connecticut has reopened the Care4Kids child care subsidy program to families on the waitlist. Over the coming months, thousands of children and families will regain access to early care and education programs.**
Jessica Sager, Esq., is the co-founder and chief executive officer of All Our Kin, and a lecturer in education studies at Yale University. She is a Pahara Aspen Fellow, a Public Voices Fellow, and an Ashoka Fellow.