WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) – Kaitlyn Adkins is studying law to help families in her community affected by the opioid epidemic in the heart of West Virginia’s coal mining region.
But she needs someone to help her look after her three small children. The first-generation college graduate said she couldn’t complete her law degree without access to reliable daycare.
Providers say millions of children and their families are now at risk of losing this vital service. After two years of reception Federal grants220,000 child care programs across the country were cut off from funding on Saturday. The monthly payments were the largest investment in child care in U.S. history, ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. They stabilized the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels like they’re just setting everyone up for failure,” Adkins said as she dropped off her 2-year-old and 1-year-old twins at daycare one morning before an hour-and-a-half drive to class.
For years, providers have been sounding the alarm about an unsustainable business model that burdens families with high costs and leaves centers with razor-thin profit margins – problems only exacerbated by inflation and a severe labor shortage.
Now providers say they face the possibility of closure without additional investment. The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC, analyzed a provider survey and government data and concluded that in six states – Arkansas, Montana, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, DC – up to half of all providers can be forced to close.
Providers in rural communities who serve primarily low-income families are most at risk. The situation is particularly dire in West Virginia, where a quarter of all children live in poverty.
Adkins takes her children to a center affiliated with a church in Williamson, West Virginia, where nearly 90% of families qualify for government assistance to cover child care costs. For a family of four, that means they earn less than $45,000 per year. Williamson is the seat of Mingo County, where one in three residents lives below the poverty line and more than 75% of children in the county school system are being raised by someone other than their parents, often grandparents.
Most mornings, Adkins wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to take her children to the Living Water Child Care Center. She usually comes home late, plays with her children and bathes them before studying until early morning.
Adkins, the proud daughter of a former miner, said she has witnessed the loss of jobs in the coal industry Influx of opioids in the state with the highest rate of overdoses. She said taxpayers would pay more for social programs in the long run if the government doesn’t invest in child care now.
“We see our children really suffering — and that’s a big problem,” said Adkins, who wants to focus his practice on child abuse and neglect as an attorney. “If they don’t have structure and guidance, we will keep repeating cycles.”
As of October 2021, Democrats’ American Rescue Plan Act distributed $24 billion in payments to providers across the country, with funding varying depending on program size and quality rating. In West Virginia, centers received an average of $5,000 to $27,000 per month and family providers received between $750 and $3,200. The legislation also included $15 billion to expand the blanket grant program that subsidizes the cost of child care for low-income families, although it is set to expire in September 2024.
At Living Water, a $7,000 monthly subsidy went toward purchasing new curricula and developing staff certifications, according to Director Jackie Branch. The investment paid off: In April, the center moved up a notch in its state quality rating and increased its monthly stabilization funding to $11,000.
When staff realized that many children at home couldn’t play outside, they installed a rubber playground and colorful umbrellas.
School-age children can finally do homework in after-school programs thanks to recently purchased computers.
Like most providers in the state, Living Water was able to offer employee bonuses.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the average wage for a child care worker in the U.S. was $13.71 in May 2022, compared to $10.47 in West Virginia. Wage growth in the industry has increased fallen behind other low-wage jobs.
Over the years, Goldie Huff, a waitress at a Williamson steakhouse, has cared for more than two dozen foster children. There are only two daycare centers in the entire county, and the community can’t afford to lose either, she said.
“It would be terrible,” she said, if Living Waters closed. All of her foster children have attended Living Water, along with children, grandchildren and other family members. The state has the highest number of youth in foster care in the nation.
She said many of the children she cares for are recovering from traumatic childhood experiences and need structure. “How many kids do you know who don’t wake up for breakfast?” They don’t know where the meals come from. They didn’t bathe. They never had nice clothes.”
The center serves three meals a day as well as snacks. They also distribute donations such as clothing and school supplies.
Branch said it will be an uphill battle to find other grants to make up for the lost funds.
Policymakers should be concerned not only about center closures, but also about the quality of care and education available with such limited resources, said Melissa Colagrosso, CEO of A Place To Grow Children’s Center in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Since it opened 28 years ago, the number of accredited centers in the state has halved.
“This is our chance, right from the start, to really change a child’s brain and future,” she said. “You invest in early childhood, then you invest less in prisons.”
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources announced last week that it would give providers a final bonus payment toward the end of September, but the funds have been drawn. The agency also allocated $24 million in TANF funding to compensate providers for children whose costs are subsidized based on enrollment rather than attendance for an additional year.
However, providers say they need a permanent and long-term financing solution instead.
If West Virginia wants to grow its economy, child care is part of the infrastructure needed to do so, Tiffany Gale said. She’s not a mother herself, but just months before the pandemic began, she began caring for six children at her home in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
In just three years, it has moved up a notch in the state’s quality rating and expanded into a vacant downtown commercial space. She has five employees and 18 children – 24 spread across the two locations – who would otherwise have been on the waiting list. Three quarters of them are considered low-income and are entitled to state-subsidized care.
With the help of federal grants, Gale was able to purchase the two neighboring units. But now that pandemic support is ending, Gale doesn’t know if she’ll be able to stay in business.
Policymakers have relied on the passion of child care providers — most of whom are women — to find a way to make ends meet without the resources and support they really need, Gale said.
“They’re still going to do it whether they live in poverty and have to go to the food bank every week or not,” she said of child care workers’ commitment to the work. “I think we’re really taking advantage of that instead of lifting them up, uplifting children and uplifting our communities.”
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