Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea. We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.
You don’t need me to tell you that the climate change era has arrived. Climate-enhanced extreme weather and disasters are in the news seemingly monthly. Already this year, California has been drenched by powerful atmospheric rivers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale were hit by historic flooding, and Europe just broke its all-time April heat record. If you’ve been following my work for the past year, you know I am deeply concerned about how unprepared our child- and family-serving systems are for this new reality. I’m not the only one. A new report puts a fine point on why early care & education stakeholders need to have a climate strategy, and why public officials need to have ECE in their climate strategy: a staggering number of child care programs are under threat.
The report, from the Low Income Investment Fund, is titled, “Flood Risks in New York City’s Child Care System: Using Spatial Analysis to Identify Water Vulnerabilities in Family Child Care Homes.” With a level of sophistication I have never before seen applied to early childhood settings when it comes to environmental issues, the authors connected New York City’s robust child care licensing data with projected risks of floods and sea level rise. They conclude:
Mapping state child care licensing data in the context of projected long-term sea-level rise and stormwater flood scenarios suggests that 1,638 licensed FCC programs caring for 22,702 children in New York City face immediate risk of flood and water damage. By 2080, a flood mirroring what occurred in 2021, as a result of Hurricane Ida, would put nearly 80% of licensed FCCs at risk.
Family child care programs in NYC are of particular concern because so many include or primarily use basement spaces as part of their physical layout. To see how generalizable these results are to cities and states without heavy basement usage, I called up one of the report’s authors, Joe Fretwell.
Fretwell acknowledged that in “the Northeast corridor where there is a lot of denser housing and a lot of basements, there are unique risks to that area” due to the proliferation of basements used for home-based business. Yet, he added, “That being said, there is a lot of generalizability. There is a huge amount of housing and infrastructure in this country that has not been maintained, particularly in the face of climate change. Housing in this country is generally not ready to withstand worsening weather.” This is a particular concern for family child care providers, who operate on exceptionally tight financial margins and often have little ability to keep up with needed maintenance, much less invest in climate-resilient upgrades.
It should be clear by now that the operability of child care facilities, whether in-home programs or centers, is entwined with broader questions of the future of child care. Hurricanes like Harvey and Ian wiped out or damaged dozens of child care programs, while heat waves can easily overwhelm weak air conditioning systems and force extended closures. What’s more, better facilities will not only have more adaptive capacity, they will be healthier, safer and better support the thriving of staff and children. As Fretwell explains:
“Sometimes infrastructure gets pitted against workforce issues, but we see those things as completely aligned — particularly thinking about programs that serve low-income children and rely heavily on public subsidy. Calls by the sector as a whole to increase reimbursement rates, to increase public funding for child care, those things are directly related obviously to the sector’s ability to pay educators more and provide high-quality programs, but also in the individual bottom line of programs and their ability to operate like a normal small business and take on a loan if they need to, which is not possible for most child care programs right now.”
(Family child care providers especially can too often fall through the cracks when it comes to receiving financial support, as they tend to not be nonprofits yet to also be more informal businesses that may lack a business banking account and other mechanisms. These challenges cropped up painfully when it came to family child care programs qualifying for the Paycheck Protection Program during the height of the pandemic.)
Beyond loans, child care providers are in desperate need of public dollars to finance facility upgrades. Even modest investments can make a big difference. As an example of what climate-resilience upgrades can look like, the report gives the example of Yolanda Miguel, who owns a family child care program in Brooklyn. Miguel’s basement flooded badly during Hurricane Ida due to the slope of the backyard and cracks in an outdoor staircase. Thanks to a $63,600 grant from LIIF, “Yolanda has been able to repair the backyard play space and re-open her program with new equipment. She renovated her back deck, ground level and outdoor stairs, making it safer for the children, while also mitigating future water seepage into the basement.”
Making capital funding readily available to child care programs, including family child care homes, is one of the concrete recommendations the report offers. While the recommendations are technically focused on New York City, many are widely applicable. These include:
Offer technical assistance to providers to ensure that any public, philanthropic or private facilities financing is used for projects that make programs more prepared for disasters.
Use data to prioritize programs and areas that face compounding racial, socioeconomic and climate disparities for facilities funding.
Allocate funding from various federal, state and local environmental/climate-related legislation for child care facilities.
Incorporate child care facilities into city/county flood mitigation plans.
Make care infrastructure and young children a priority in broad city/county resilience planning.
Climate change and child care can feel like disparate issues. Spending a few minutes sitting with LIIF’s report and interactive maps will disabuse you of that notion. We cannot solve the child care crisis without considering the implications of climate change, and given the crucial contributions of child care to both child development and family flourishing, we cannot effectively respond to a chaotic climate without investing in the early years.
The need to act is urgent. In many ways the LIIF study was a low-end estimate of the threat. When I asked Fretwell what surprised him the most in their results, he replied, “the sheer magnitude of risk to the sector was really eye-opening,” adding that “New York City has released three projections [for potential levels of water deluge in coming decades] — and the worst-case scenario has already happened.”*
* This was during the storm system that culminated in the remnant of Hurricane Ida in 2021 — at one point, Central Park was taking on more than three inches of rain an hour.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.