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Child care funding cliff is turning back the clock on gains for workers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's no exaggeration to say that government money saved child care during the pandemic. Congress approved unprecedented levels of spending to ensure essential workers had somewhere to send their kids. But in two days, most of that funding is ending, which means that working parents may start seeing changes, even tuition hikes, as child care providers figure out how to survive. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: At A Place To Grow in Oak Hill, W.V., a dozen 2-year-olds prance about to their favorite tunes alongside their two teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Good job.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: Come on, Aris (ph).

HSU: This kind of ratio is a luxury in day cares and a mark of quality. And quality is what Melissa Colagrosso has been all about since she founded the center 28 years ago.

MELISSA COLAGROSSO: Most of the time, children raised in a good quality child care - you can see the difference in their resilience and their people skills and their ability to learn.

HSU: But now, with pandemic-era funds drying up, Colagrosso's ability to carry on with that same level of quality is under threat.

COLAGROSSO: We're going to have to slow down payroll. We're going to have to cut everywhere we can cut.

HSU: Soon, no more paid sick leave, no more floating staff to help with diapers or lunch or with the little one who's having a bad day. Running a day care in this low-income rural community has never been easy. Parents can't afford to pay much. And for families who qualify for government subsidies, Colagrosso gets even less. Year after year, she has struggled to make it work.

COLAGROSSO: The number of times that payroll would come up - I don't have it.

HSU: But the pandemic brought some breathing room. First, the state stepped in and made child care free for all essential workers, ensuring day care is a supply of families. Then in 2021, Congress came to the rescue with $24 billion to stabilize the child care sector as part of the American Rescue Plan.

COLAGROSSO: It got the momentum going where it needed to go.

HSU: The money started flowing. And over the past year, A Place To Grow has received $27,000 a month. And what a difference it's made for the children and the staff.

COLAGROSSO: So this is all new since - we did this with ARP funding.

HSU: Colagrosso shows me the new outdoor classroom, the swing set the kids had begged for, the pedal scooters that help with gross motor skills.

COLAGROSSO: All of that with pandemic money. This was just an empty field. Kids would come out here and run and didn't have equipment.

HSU: And then there's what's gone to the staff. Before the pandemic, Colagrosso would start teachers at minimum wage - 8.75 an hour - typical for day care teachers who are among the lowest paid workers in America. She would try to give them 25-cent raises every year.

COLAGROSSO: Maybe a good year, I'd do 40 cents an hour raise.

HSU: But thanks to that federal money, she's given $1 an hour raises in each of the past three years. She added paid sick leave for the first time for even part-timers. And here's the big one. Since last fall, she's been giving teachers a $200 bonus in every paycheck.

COLAGROSSO: You don't have to do anything, but just be here. Show up. Don't call off. Be on time.

HSU: So that was an extra $400 a month And wait. There's more. The state also sent federal dollars directly to day care teachers. Destiny Vansickle says a $2,500 check from the government changed her life.

DESTINY VANSICKLE: With the bonuses we receive and everything, I was able to put a down payment towards a house.

HSU: A two-bedroom place right next to her sister - no small feat for a young mother of two who had been living in low-income housing.

VANSICKLE: It's been really nice to have our own place and having my boys being able to have a yard because at Pine Knoll, we didn't really have a yard to play in.

HSU: In the preschool room, Tina G., who's worked here for 13 years, says the extra cash allowed her to give her 9- and 12-year-old daughters Christmas for the first time.

TINA G: They got brand new bikes. Both my girls got new kayaks.

HSU: And she treated herself to something, too. She'd had a series of used cars that broke down all the time, so she bought herself a brand-new car.

G: I took on bills that I was finally able to afford because of the extra money. It felt like the work I was doing was finally being acknowledged. Like, I feel like my pay matches the hard work I put in.

HSU: But that satisfaction was short-lived. With the federal funds ending, so have those $200 bonuses. Already, Tina G. is behind on her car payment.

G: I guess maybe it was our fault for getting used to it, thinking it was going to be more than temporary.

HSU: A bill in Congress to extend child care funding has gone nowhere. West Virginia and other states are trying to help out. But still, Melissa Colagrosso is facing deeper cuts.

COLAGROSSO: You know, you do the math, like any other business, and the math doesn't add up. This is what I need. This is what I'm going to bring in. It's not there.

HSU: She says for years, she thought elected leaders just didn't understand the value of child care, didn't understand that without affordable options, people can't go to work. But then, she says...

COLAGROSSO: The pandemic hit and all this money came. And I thought, oh, they did understand. All along, they understood. They just didn't prioritize it.

HSU: She's afraid the same is true once again. After a moment in which America finally recognized child care is critical, not just for families but for the economy, she's stunned that lessons learned are so soon forgotten. Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Oak Hill, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.