Carla Adams is the Regional Director for the Child Development Council of Franklin County, Inc. Head Start and Early Head Start Programs and a member of the 2021 Groundwork Early Childhood Leadership Fellowship Cohort from Columbus, OH.
Prenatal to 5 is THE most crucial time in a child’s development. Early childhood programs and providers are essential in laying the groundwork for a lifetime of exposures, experiences, learning, and development. The truth is, with the rise of childcare deserts and the nationwide staffing crisis, ECE programs and providers are slowly moving towards the endangered business list. It is a hard balancing act for child care owner, businesses, families and staff to come to grips with. They have a passion and drive for the work, but also have to make rent, pay bills, and feed their families. Families struggle to make the decision for quality care verse what they can afford. Teachers and providers are burnt out and barely making ends meet. Why have the responsibility of caring for 20 children, making minimum wage with no benefits, when you can work at Aldi making $14+/hour and only worry about yourself? The stress of the profession and lack of support and funding are causing quality staff to leave the field and never look back. The system is broken and is a major contributor in the early childhood crises.
One of the greatest reasons why Head Start speaks to me is because the program aims to support families in becoming self-sufficient and breaking the cycle of poverty. It’s almost impossible to break that cycle when families are set up for failure from the beginning. Our staff work with parents to obtain employment as family goals. They assist with finding and completing applications, practice interviewing skills, help child care adjustments at one of our full day sites, and anything else the family might need. However, far too often, the parent lands the job, starts working (because you must have proof of a qualifying activity and 30 days of paystubs), and suddenly they make too much to qualify for the initial public funded child care (PFCC) assistance and no longer qualify for our full day program. Those conversations with families have been the worst experiences of my career. It breaks me down a little further each time and there is no excuse for it to continue to happen.
As businesses, we look to triage the situations, but sometimes it does more harm than good. This past year, our agency was awarded Quality Improvement Funds from the Office of Head Start. We knew our Teacher Assistant salaries needed much attention to bring them closer to that livable wage, combat losing more staff to “making more money somewhere else”, and to attract new, qualified applicants. Our Teacher Assistants (TAs) with a CDA credential hourly rates went from $11.57 to $13.57. Many would see this as a huge benefit; however, to some it made life so much harder. With the current PFCC eligibility guidelines and the increase to our pay scale, it meant one of our staff members no longer qualifies for their initial PFCC. Due to her denied PFCC applications, she is now considered ‘private pay’ for our centers. You might be thinking, “No problem, she just got a raise and can afford it,” right? Let’s look at the numbers... A forty-hour work week totals her gross weekly pay to $542.80. Our agency’s private pay rate for preschool is $230.97/week, leaving the staff person $311.83 BEFORE taxes, insurance, and other deductions. This is also a staff person that works year-round. TAs in our school year program prorate their pay for their off weeks in the summer and only bring home $438.41/week before taxes, insurance and other deductibles. The raise we provided to bring our staff to bring them closer to a livable wage has now crippled this mom and likely many others. Does she pay rent, fill up her gas tank, or feed her family? Our agency works diligently to make continual improvements on salaries and incentives for staff; however, the limited PFCC eligibility requirements make it extremely hard for individuals to reduce the pay check to pay check struggle they encounter without child care subsidy supports.
Each time the Office of Head Start approves a cost of living allocation (COLA) or quality funds are available, I get excited because it will bring many of our staff closer to earning a livable wage. Then the pit in my stomach opens because I know for many staff, this slight increase in their wage will likely result in losing their child care assistance. It happens too often and the solution is right in front of us.
People might think money is all that matters with employment. It makes a huge impact on decisions, but benefits do as well. Many ECE staff come into the profession because they are parents and want those child care perks. Two years ago, I had a staff person request to enroll her infant into our Early Head Start program, a request we get often from our staff because they know their children will be safe, cared for, and be provided high quality services. She submitted her PFCC application and was denied because she made too much money. A single mom, with an infant, making $16/hour as a teacher, was unable to get child care assistance. Unfortunately, our grant does not cover the entire cost to run the EHS program and families must qualify for PFCC to enroll, leaving no option for ‘private pay’ slots. Fast forward two years, same staff person makes another request to enroll her now toddler and newborn into the EHS program. A single mom, with two children, now making $20.01/hour- thanks to a bachelor’s degree and a few cost of living increases- is STILL denied for initial PFCC application because she makes $500 a month too much. Again, some might say, “If she doesn’t qualify, she can just enroll at a private child care.” AGAIN, let’s look at the numbers… A forty-hour work week totals her gross weekly pay at $800.40. The average weekly cost of child care for an infant or toddler is around $307.50/week, times two in her case, equals $615. This leaves $185.40 BEFORE taxes, insurance, and other deductions. If she would prorate her pay to cover the gap in summer employment, that would take her gross weekly pay to $646.48. It turns my stomach to continue the math, so I won’t.
Luckily, both staff members were able to find alternative programs and care for their children without having to leave their jobs. There are so many more that do not have that option or fortune and struggle to make the best decision for their families every day.
These staff and providers are the glue that holds the entire economic infrastructure together. Without providers, programs cannot operate. If programs cannot operate, the workforce cannot function. If the workforce cannot function, our economy will collapse. The system of support for child care subsidies is flawed and adding to the early childhood crisis. Expanding PFCC eligibility would the first step in the right direction to support the vital infrastructure of early childhood programing.
Oh, and the Office of Head Started notified grantees we have another COLA on the way. Great, so what staff am I losing? Increasing eligibility for PFCC to 150% of the FPL is a great start to ensuring programs like ours can maintain a quality early education workforce.
Groundwork Ohio's budget blog series features stories from child care professionals, families, business leaders, and community members on why there's an urgent need in their communities to expand access to quality child care. In the state biennial budget, Ohio legislators have the opportunity to increase eligibility for the state's publicly funded child care program from 130% of the Federal Poverty Level to 150% of the Federal Poverty Level. Read our child care budget fact sheet to learn more about why there is an urgent need to increase access to quality child care. Take action today by contacting your Senator urging their support for expanding eligibility by clicking here.