Erie's Child Care Crisis
Women, children bear the brunt
What happens when the workforce behind the workforce falters? When people can't go to work because there's no one to look after their children, and generations of youth miss out on essential learning opportunities?
Erie is about to find out.
Signs of a child care crisis ravaging the nation are starting to be seen in Erie County as the last pool of funding just dried up. The effects are beginning to hit home — and will likely worsen for years to come — as parents and early childhood educators endure a grueling and relentless fight. The worst part? Nobody is there to save them.
With Erie County officials making budget cuts to the Office of Children and Youth services, and major companies doing away with hybrid work schedules that accommodate parents who have to stay home with children, it's increasingly difficult to believe that the Erie community values families.
This isn't an issue that just landed on the radar, though. In 2021, the Jefferson Educational Society released a report where author and sustainability researcher Court Gould detailed how the child care crisis has worsened since the onset of the pandemic. He cited statewide data that revealed 55 percent of parents pre-pandemic reported they missed work due to child care issues, creating $3.7 billion in lost revenue.
Now, pandemic-era funding has ended and child care is in an even more desperate situation. The Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission found that insufficient child care has created $6.65 billion in losses this year.
That's $4.1 billion in lost earnings and reduced participation in the workforce, $1.52 billion in reduced business revenue and turnover costs, and $1.03 billion in tax revenue loss.
In 2021, Gould warned that without action, the situation would become dire when temporary relief funding for child care ended. What will be Erie County's fate since it turned a blind eye to the crisis?
Well, the loss of child care is not just an inconvenience for families. It's the mass exodus of women from the workforce; it's the inequitable education for future generations; it's the hardship driving demand for mental health services; and it's the reason economic development needs a different perspective.
Many parents are already feeling the hurt of the child care crisis as Erie Insurance recently announced that hybrid-position employees will be required to return to the office beginning in the new year. For parents who are now unable to stay home with their children, they are finding it hard to find affordable, quality care with available spots.
When Ashley Aldan, a 31-year-old mother in Fairview, found out she was pregnant, she already had to leave one job due to unrealistic work expectations for new mothers. She's now at odds as she took a job at Erie Insurance because it allowed her the flexibility to pick up and drop off her now 3-year-old son at child care. She said that she initially joined the company in a different department, but she was under the impression that returning to in-office work was not a direction the company was heading in.
"We are certainly empathetic to the personal responsibilities of our employees and understand that locating and keeping quality child care can be a challenge in the communities we serve and across the country," Lydia Harris, communications consultant for Erie Insurance said. "We encourage employees to work closely with their leaders to identify a solution that helps accommodate their recurring personal commitments."
Aldan said that thankfully, she can speak with her manager and work out a doable schedule. Others are not as lucky.
"A lot of concerns have been expressed for single parents or parents who work multiple jobs and there's less flexibility in their household and how they're going to be able to make this work," Aldan said.
A previous Erie Insurance employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that Erie Insurance was beginning back-to-work plans when her daughter turned 1. She asked her management if she could remain remote due to breastfeeding and its associated difficulties in the workplace, and said she was quickly denied.
"I soon after looked for a new job," she said.
Even for Aldan, though, the transition will be difficult.
The child care center she was finally able to enroll her son in is far from her office and doesn't open until 7 a.m. when Aldan needs to get to work. The center faces its own challenges and can't remain open longer in the day due to short staffing, a common story.
Currently, centers across the nation are experiencing short staffing and high turnover.
Nadine Leach, owner of Handled with Care, said it's one of her biggest obstacles.
Arlene McMahon, owner of Little Acorns Learning Center seconded that.
"It's difficult. Since COVID, employees and applicants have kind of changed their priorities for work. They're looking for things with a little more flexibility and want higher wages," McMahon related. "We are a very payroll-heavy industry, so we are very much dependent on staffing. We're not like a McDonald's where you can just put in a self-serve kiosk and save some money."
Childcare centers can't afford to cut corners when the education and care of children is at stake.
Places like Erie Insurance offer benefits such as assistance to find child care and budget for it, but some benefits have guidelines like giving the company 30 days' notice before being able to use the assistance. Others are able to locate child care but the waitlist is too long to be a realistic option.
A recent report by the PA Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC) and Ready Nation found that across Pennsylvania, working families report struggling with affordability, quality, and access to child care. Across the commonwealth, 61 percent of respondents reported affordability is a challenge, while 51 percent said quality child care was an issue, and 70 percent did not have access to child care at all.
Once Mekenzie Morgan, 27, of Erie, calculated the cost of child care versus how much she'd make working, she broke even.
A study by Pennsylvania State University this year revealed a median cost of $339 per child per week for child care.
That's around $17,000 per year and is on par with rates in Erie County. For reference, U.S. Census data reports the median household income in Erie County as $56,000.
Morgan is now a stay-at-home mother due to her hardships in finding viable child care options. She's also had multiple job offers she's had to turn down due to the waitlist for child care.
Madisyn Schaefer, a 22-year-old mother in Union City, began looking into child care when she was pregnant so that she could go back to work after the birth of her daughter. She was on a waiting list for over a year before she got the call about an available spot. That spot became a moot point when Schaefer couldn't get a job to pay for child care by the weeklong deadline the center gave her.
She became limited to jobs with night shifts as her family could only watch her daughter after daytime work hours. Now, her daughter is next on the list, but the next open spot is estimated to be up to a year away.
Unfortunately, the tale of women leaving the workforce isn't far-fetched.
Currently, the United States Department of Labor reports that the participation between men and women in the workforce is the most equal it has ever been, and the Brookings Institute reports that 70 percent of those women have children.
When parents can't find child care, they can't work. It seems mothers might be on the hook for that loss more than fathers, which would drastically affect the current progress in women's employment.
After surveying a large population, the Marshall Plan for Moms found that 45 percent of women who left the workforce cited lack of child care as the reason they left, whereas only 14 percent of men said it was a reason for their departure.
"I think it affects mothers more than fathers because of gender stereotypes," Morgan said. "Mothers stay home and raise the babies, and dad goes and works. Men are not penalized for having children, while women are."
She said she was one week postpartum when her previous manager sent work-related messages.
"I was seen as leaving them hanging, but if it was my husband that was home after a surgery, he wouldn't hear anything," she said.
Aldan has been in similar situations with various employers.
"There is a different type of pressure placed on women to maintain a perfect household — to sit down and do the educational games with the kids, go out and do the sensory activities, have everything planned, and if you're in the office, great, but maintain that balance," she lamented.
In Pennsylvania, the Century Foundation estimates that with the most recent funding cuts, 2,848 child care programs will close, and parents will lose $412 million in earnings after being forced to cut hours or leave the workforce.
After announcing that all employees need to return to in-office work after working remotely or with a hybrid schedule since March of 2020, Erie Insurance (Erie's largest employer) will have workers facing the difficult decision of how to access affordable childcare.
(Photo: Jessica Hunter)
For Thanksgiving, children at Little Acorns ruffled their feathers in the kitchen, learning hands-on about pumpkin pie's many ingredients and textures. McMahon, the owner, said sensory experiences and socialization are essential to development.
"We're in a big world of technology, so children are on phones and iPads, and to be able to see the world around them and figure out how things work is going to help them be better learners in the future," she said.
Currently, the center has 47 children with over 200 families on its waitlist. Its capacity is 52, but it doesn't have the staffing to be at capacity.
To encourage high-quality child care, Pennsylvania rewards those centers that meet high standards of care. To assess quality, the commonwealth uses Keystone STARS (Standards, Training/Professional Development, Assistance, Resources and Supports). There are four levels from STAR1 to STAR4. The higher the STAR level, the higher the quality.
Many child care centers in the area, like Little Acorns, Handled with Care, YMCA of Corry, and Early Connections, are STAR4 — the highest level. In turn, the state provides more funding at each ascending level.
However, regulations require specific staff training, child-to-teacher ratios, activity management, minimum teacher pay, and more — in addition to the basic guidelines child care centers must follow to maintain their licenses.
The requirements exist to ensure high quality, but it's backfiring.
The lowest position a center can hire is a teacher's aide, but those aides are not allowed to be alone with a group of children and can't do things like walk a child to the bathroom without the supervision of an assistant group supervisor — a position that requires at least 2,500 hours of documented experience in Early Childhood Education (ECE).
An aide needs a CDA (Child Development Associate) credential. Therefore, child care centers compete with state-funded public schools to get those workers — amid a teacher shortage — and are currently losing the battle.
Nia Peoples, 21, of Edinboro, is an employee at the Wattsburg YMCA's child care program. She took up the job — one of three she has — because she enjoys fostering growth in children. She will earn her CDA soon and has decided to go to school for ECE, but she plans to work at a public school.
Public schools can pay more and provide benefits.
With a limited pool of hires, child care centers face the dilemma of not having the staff required to maintain a STAR rating, dropping them down to a lower level. With no choice but to accept the lower-level rating, the child care centers lose funding.
McMahon budgets a lot of time and education fees for training required by the STAR program, too.
"If the finances are not there, it goes onto the burden of the families paying for that, and they can't afford to pay anymore. Tuition is very expensive. It's more than a house payment," she said, noting that parents shouldn't have to choose between quality child care or putting food on the table.
She emphasized that the quality of child care shouldn't depend on wealth. It should be accessible for everyone to empower future generations.
Research shows that the return on investment for high-quality child care centers is high, with increased school and career achievement and reduced costs in remedial education, health, and criminal justice system expenditures. Child care is a place to nurture skills like impulse control, persistence, teamwork, cognition, and character, which drive education, career, and life success.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman reports that the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing from birth to age 5. His research reveals a 13 percent return on investment per child through better education, economic, health, and social outcomes.
That means for every $1 invested into early learning, the return can be up to $16.
Where can Erie go from here?
Although it would be easy enough to point fingers and blame each other, it's not feasible. For a systemic issue, there needs to be a systemic change, and that involves everyone working toward the same goal.
To understand a possible solution, it's important to look at the past.
During World War II, when men went to war and women took on "Rosie the Riveter" type roles in factories, the government provided child care as a service.
After the war, a bill was brought to the table in 1976 to expand the program as a permanent, nationwide service. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill. In the following years — the late 1970s and early 1980s — the country began providing subsidies for child care to those in the lowest socioeconomic classes.
Those programs have changed over time but still exist. Families at or below 100 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the Head Start program, and families at or below 300 percent of the line qualify for Pre-K Counts.
Many child care centers encourage families to apply for subsidies, and although it helps many families, it further alienates the working class, who don't qualify for aid but struggle to afford tuition.
Leach and McMahon also said there's a gap between what the subsidy pays and what a private parent pays, leaving the child care center to make up the difference. In other words, the more disadvantaged children a center helps, the more of a bill they have to foot.
Following the pandemic, Gould said he believes the crisis merits another look at universal child care.
"With the pandemic exacting a devastating economic toll and claiming more lives than the number of American soldiers killed in combat during the Vietnam War, World War I, and World War II combined, the economics of child care is understandably back on the table," he wrote in his 2021 report.
Possible solutions could include increasing the threshold for subsidy eligibility, increasing reimbursement rates to match the true cost of care in child care centers, supporting the expansion of child care options including those with nonstandard-hour care and for families in rural communities, as well as increasing compensation and access to benefits for ECE workers.
Fortunately for Erie, there are some solutions already beginning to take shape.
As child care centers continue upholding high standards for care and the demand for ECE workers grows, an apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship model is taking form. Early Connections is a registered pre-apprenticeship intermediary, as pre-apprenticeships enable high school students to gain experience in the ECE field. That way, when high schoolers graduate, they can directly work in child care centers or at least have a path to obtain a CDA certificate and possibly even a bachelor's degree in ECE.
Kim Beers, who serves as the Early Connections ECE pre-apprenticeship program coordinator, helps to establish connections between community partners and the schools and students in search of available funding.
School districts, including Erie High and Corry Area High School, currently have ECE programs that work to prepare students to enter the workforce upon graduation.
In addition, in 2018, a pilot group formed with two Pennsylvania universities — Shippensburg and Edinboro University (now PennWest Edinboro) — to obtain a Professional Development Organization (PDO) grant that breaks down the cost of higher education to make it more attainable for those who already have CDA certificates. The PDO grant pays tuition for ECE workers who want to get a degree.
Beers and Michelle Harkins, director of Early Connections, confirmed the turnover rate for those who participated in the pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship programs is lower than those who don't utilize it.
Donna-Marie Cole-Malott, co-leader with the Pennsylvania Education Diversity Consortium, also stated that turnover could be reduced using various tactics, from higher education to professional development, to help connect community members with resources that alleviate barriers like cost and race-related discrepancies. For example, creating a pipeline for community members to receive an education and enter the workforce in their communities. That way, there's a stronger connection between educators and the children they care for, many of whom they would share a background with.
In addition to advocacy for child care workers, Harkins said it's helpful to have business allies, too. In fact, Erie Insurance is one of the businesses that contribute to early learning initiatives in the area.
They have donated to Erie's Future Fund, which provides scholarships to low-income families to allow children to attend high-quality programs at 3 and 4 years old.
The Future Fund is an investment into the community for children from families whose gross family income meets the federal poverty threshold of up to 350 percent. Unlike the subsidy for children from low-income families to attend child care, the gross family income requirement is more inclusive as it doesn't require both parents within a family to be working to qualify. It looks at the bigger picture when considering a family's situation, especially as one parent may be unable to work due to the lack of child care.
For example, a mother staying at home and living on her significant other's income due to the lack of child care may meet the poverty requirements based on income alone, but because both parents don't have jobs, they don't qualify.
The Future Fund was created in 2011 as an outgrowth of the Erie Community Foundation's Early Childhood Advisory Panel in partnership with the United Way of Erie County, members of the Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC), and Erie Together.
The program enables families to choose STAR 3 or 4 facilities to send their children to. Since its creation, the fund has helped 1,600 children receive education before kindergarten.
Those organizations who donate to the scholarship effort also receive a tax break. For those companies who want to express support, they can also help through cause-related marketing.
It's an opportunity for companies to shine a light on the issue while receiving positive public relations.
Harkins, who oversees cause-related initiatives with Erie's Future Fund, said it's vitally important to work toward a singular goal to solve some issues within the child care system. With many policymakers coming up with their versions of solutions, she said it's helpful to educate everyone and get on the same page to truly progress.
McMahon shared her frustrations as well, saying, "The general feeling is that everybody acknowledges that the system is broken for child care. It sits on the backs of the families to be able to make it work, yet nobody wants to be able to put the money in to support the children. There are always other things that seem to be more important than that, and they tell us there's only so much money to go around, and everybody has a need."
Also unlike policy, the funding stream from Erie's Future Fund takes effect rather quickly. Harkins said they have a fair, transparent system with public reporting, so there's never a question about where the money is going and how it's impacting the community. Following that logical system enables them to put things into effect fairly quickly.
The other model Erie businesses are looking at is an employer model, where companies would pay for spots at local child care centers. That way, they can recruit employees and offer child care as a benefit. Parents said the downside is that they don't want their employers dictating the quality of care their children receive but said credit toward tuition may be helpful.
For example, Bank of America employees can receive up to $275 per month per eligible child toward child care.
Looking at research in economic development and various forms of research could help Erie create the first of its kind: an American city with universal child care.
With a small enough community, leaders could create a ballpark number to reach by using data like how many beds prisons may need in the future based on current illiteracy rates, or how quality control would increase in manufacturing plants due to lessened burdens for working parents.
Erie County and the City of Erie are in the news for their economic development already, talking about its many benefits to reviving the area. Child care reform would be a crucial notch in that belt.
As Gould said in 2021, "A city of Erie's modest size, and with its oversized resources, is well-positioned to make a great stand and become a national role model for eliminating child care as a barrier to work. Erie has a unique abundance of public, private, university, philanthropic, and civic leaders who, when focused on a problem, can pioneer solutions. The case is clear that child care is critical to not just COVID recovery but equitable economic progress upon which Erie's aspirations depend."
Chloe Forbes is a local journalist with an exceptional devotion to the Oxford comma. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.