The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already dire child-care crisis in the United States, forcing families to scramble to find care among fewer available slots. But after securing a spot comes another layer that’s particularly excruciating for families in Massachusetts: affording it.
While these issues aren’t unique to Massachusetts — families across the country are struggling to secure and pay for child care, and day-care centers are facing staff shortages — the costs in the state are among the highest in the country. Infant care in Massachusetts is easily more expensive than in-state tuition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is about 30 percent more than average rent in the state, according to one estimate.
“Overall, the market for child care is completely broken, and it’s completely not working at a national level, but it looks particularly bad in Massachusetts,” said Colin Jones, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Among the issues is a shortage in supply, driven in part by a lack of workers, echoing a labor shortage currently felt across a variety of industries.
About 108,000 child-care workers have left the industry since the start of the pandemic, according to an analysis by the University of California Berkley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Nationally, child-care jobs are 90 percent of what they were at the start of the pandemic; it’s even more severe in Massachusetts, which now has 63 percent of pre-pandemic child-care job levels. These jobs are predominantly filled by women, many of whom are women of color.
“We can’t find teachers to be in classrooms, and if we don’t have teachers in classrooms, we cannot enroll kids,” said Lauren Birchfield Kennedy, cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, an organization that advocates for child-care reform. “And as a result, we’re seeing many programs need to close the entire classrooms or in some circumstances even close entire locations.”
Child-care workers are typically paid minimum wage, and in May 2020, the nationwide median hourly wage for child-care workers was $12.24, according to the US Department of Labor. Meanwhile, other industries looking to attract workers are raising their hourly rates, prompting child-care workers to flee for better-paying jobs in other sectors. But the child-care industry can’t keep up.
“These might be educators who love teaching, but cannot afford to make minimum wage,” Kennedy said. “But we have restaurants, retail, other industries raising their wages to $18 an hour, $20 an hour, $25 an hour.”
According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, Massachusetts has the highest cost of infant care of any state in the country, topped only by Washington, D.C.
The alarming figures put Massachusetts, with an average annual cost of infant child care at $20,913, far ahead of California, the state with the second-highest such costs at $16,945. Comparatively, Mississippi is the state with the lowest annual cost of infant care at $5,436. According to a report by the Treasury Department, the nationwide average cost of care for infants to 4-year-olds is about $10,000 a year per child.
A number of factors make child care particularly costly in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts is an expensive state to live in, with high rent and costs of living that are acutely felt in an industry in which many providers run their businesses out of their homes. Massachusetts also pays higher wages relative to other states, which increases labor costs.
Massachusetts’ minimum wage is $13.50, the second-highest in the country, according to the US Department of Labor. A number of other states pay workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
There are also regulations in Massachusetts that make operating child-care programs more costly. Massachusetts requires lower ratios of children to adults in child-care programs than other states. A recent report from a state Senate committee noted that Massachusetts is among three states with the lowest infant-to-caregiver ratios in the country.
“In terms of care for kids, you want low and good ratios, and that’s always a part of the quality conversation,” Jones said. “When we talk about anything in education and early education, personnel costs are really driving the entire thing. It’s great to have good ratios like we do; they’re also going to mean higher costs.”
It’s typically middle-income families that have the most difficulty affording child care. Although there are some subsidies for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum and those on the other end can afford it themselves, those in the middle are stuck figuring out how to cover the costs on their own.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already pressing issues and “disrupted the whole system,” Jones said.
Governor Charlie Baker ordered child-care programs to close in March and opened emergency child-care centers solely to serve the children of essential workers. That left most providers without their main income stream: tuition payments. When they reopened months later, enrollment was lower and providers were met with additional expenses to operate safely and reduce the risk for the virus to spread, tightening their margins.
“The pandemic impacted providers in ways that some of them either decided that they’re going to tap out and said, ‘I don’t think after being closed for these months that I can afford to reopen.’ Or, ‘I just don’t think that I can afford to continue to move forward.’ Or, ‘I don’t know if I want to put myself and my family at risk for that much exposure,’” said Jynai McDonald, family child-care coordinator for SEIU 509, a union that represents early child-care workers and educators. “We have family child-care providers who reported taking on credit card debt; we have providers who reported having to relocate so that they can afford their operating expenses.”
Despite the dire situation, experts and advocates say legislation introduced at the state and federal level leaves them feeling hopeful: The state established a commission that is reviewing the cost of child care and will issue recommendations to the Legislature, legislation has been introduced at the state level, and President Biden’s initial social spending bill contains billions in funding for child care.
Plus, Massachusetts is in the process of distributing $400 million in grants to child-care programs impacted by COVID-19 through funding from the federal American Rescue Plan that was passed in March. So far, $80 million has been distributed to more than 5,500 programs, a spokeswoman from the state’s Department of Early Education and Care said in a statement.
“I am extremely optimistic,” McDonald said. “I think that we are on the brink of a huge breakthrough. Through the pandemic and as we work through the different phases of it, we’re able to see how [child care] has to be a shared responsibility, because if not, we risk losing a lot of the Massachusetts workforce, which causes the Massachusetts economy to tank.”