Lourdie believes she has found her life’s work as a child care worker. She loves her work in the infant-toddler room at the Rainbow Riders Childcare Center in Blacksburg, Virginia, but she can barely make a living. She has two kids, ages eight and five, and is the sole provider for her household. She works full time, making under $17 an hour, yet she can barely pay her bills, so she is actively looking for a new position where she can earn a living wage.
“It’s not looking too good to stay in the [child care] profession right now,” says Lourdie, who requested her last name be withheld for privacy. “Do I stay in a position and go into debt, or ask my friends to help me out? Or do I start looking elsewhere?”
Lourdie’s mother moved from Haiti to live with her and help raise her children. The monthly rent they pay on their three bedroom, two-bath mobile home is $575. Lourdie says this had been affordable, but now her landlord needs the unit back and she will have to move. She fears her rent will skyrocket. “Anything else in that area is $900 and up, even for just one bedroom,” she said. Also, Lourdie graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida, which saddled her with $32,000 in student loans. She has had to defer payment each month because she doesn’t take home any extra funds to pay off her debt.
Since the onset of the pandemic, over 100,000 child care workers have left their jobs to go to retail or service industries to make more money. But caring for children is a job that requires specific skills, which have garnered more attention as scientists have placed a premium on the potential for a stimulating environment on a young, developing brain.
Lourdie knows she is lucky to make more than the $12 an hour prevailing minimum wage in the state of Virginia, but she estimates she will never be able to make more than $17 an hour working as a child care provider without an additional funding source. The time she spends worrying about her own bills is stressful and the worry and fear take a toll on her during the day, leaving her exhausted when she comes home. Yet she feels connected to the kids she cares for and doesn’t want to leave. “Children feel even the slightest change in their classroom,” she says of her work. But she has her own kids to raise, and needs to provide a roof over their heads. “Am I doing right by my own children?” she wonders. “It’s a tough question. It’s really especially hard when you love what you do.”
Nationally, the average child care worker makes $14 an hour, and child care ranks at the bottom of all U.S. occupations in annual pay. Many workers rely on public income support like food stamps or Medicaid. Increasing the pay for child care providers like Lourdie is one of the top goals in the industry right now, especially as more workers look to leave for better paying jobs in retail or the service sector. Since the onset of the pandemic, over 100,000 child care workers have left their jobs to go to retail or service industries (including janitorial work) to make more money. But caring for children is a job that requires specific skills, which have garnered more attention as scientists have placed a premium on the potential for a stimulating environment on a young, developing brain.
The pandemic rocked the social safety nets of many – and it created a willingness for Congress to spend unprecedented billions in federal funding to support industries like child care, which had previously received scant support. The March 2020 Cares Act provided $3.5 billion in child care relief – the largest enacted relief effort to date; the May 2020 HEROES Act included $7 billion in child care funding, and the March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included $39 billion for the child care industry. All of this contributed to keeping the child care industry—and centers like Rainbow Riders—afloat during the economic crisis of the pandemic.
Such economic relief makes fiscal and logical sense: child care centers cannot stay open without staff like Lourdie, and parents can’t work without reliable child care. But those funds, particularly the ARPA funds, have a dangerously looming cliff. Blacksburg can get an influx of funds for its child care workers, but it can’t count on this past 2024.
But even with this additional allocation of funds on the way to help child care workers like Lourdie, will it be enough?
Kristi Snyder, the owner and administrator of Rainbow Riders Childcare Center, a for-profit child care center in Blacksburg, has been an early childhood educator for over 35 years, says the current staffing crisis is “the worst” she’s ever seen.
“When I started in the early ‘90’s, we were getting college degree teachers, people coming out of universities who had B.S. degrees. Pay wasn’t great then either, but we were getting more qualified people,” she said. Student loans, she explains, are more prevalent now so college students graduate with debt similar to Lourdie. “They cannot afford to take a job that pays so low,” said Snyder.
“Some of our community colleges have dropped early childhood programs because their students graduate into a poverty-level industry. They are going to make poverty-level wages. We have to rebuild this industry,” Snyder says. “You would think after Covid that this is the time to do it. Because really it has been our staff and teachers who have subsidized child care for communities for decades.”
Snyder is part of a coalition of early educators and the Community Foundation of the New River Valley in Blacksburg who are working to shore up more support for early educators. Using funds from the American Rescue Plan, the Town of Blacksburg is allocating $1,150,000 toward a child care workforce project, led by the Community Foundation, to work with the 13 licensed child care providers in Blacksburg on teacher retention and recruitment.
Unlike about half the country, Blacksburg isn’t considered a child care desert. “We have enough physical child care centers [to meet demand] but we don’t have enough teachers,” said Jessica Wirgau, CEO of the Community Foundation of the New River Valley. “They are operating at about 50 to 60% of their licensed capacity, [and] could have twice as many children but they don’t have the teachers or support staff. That is primarily due to pay.”
Unlike other advanced peer nations that support the high cost of child care with robust public funding, the United States doesn’t. Aside from subsidies for very low-income families, most parents bear the full cost of finding and paying for the care. Many families can only afford to do so at such low levels that child care centers are run on thin margins, with providers being paid poverty wages. Yet research shows that access to high quality child care improves educational outcomes for children – both for kindergarten readiness and long-term educational gains. Reliable child care boosts the economy because parents can keep their jobs. But even parents who can afford to send their child to a high quality child care may not have options to do so, particularly if they live in a child care desert like some of the areas surrounding Blacksburg in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Blacksburg’s attempt to bring more funding to child care providers is one way to improve recruitment and retention for an industry that is struggling to keep employees at low wages. As outlined now, a portion of the funds will be used to provide stipends to teachers, administrators and support staff, and a portion of the funds will provide some flexibility to child care center directors to focus on other strategies in the areas of recruitment, retention and professional development.
But the funds have not yet arrived. The plan is that the first distribution will be available in October. Wirgau and her team are meeting with center directors in August and collecting data on enrollment, staff size and openings. Once that data is collected in September, they will be able to make the first financial awards.
Yet Snyder feels she can’t wait that long and maintain her existing workforce. There’s always been some attrition, she explains, especially since Blacksburg is a college town and people affiliated with Virginia Tech move in and out. But she has a 30-year employee that is getting ready to retire, and several more quality employees she says who can’t afford to stay. “They enjoy the work, they like our organization, they love working with young children and families but they cannot afford to stay in early care and education. So many other jobs that are paying better are much easier and less stressful, and they can go down the street to Chik-Fil-A and make $19 an hour, or Target at $18 an hour,” said Snyder.
And the stress and demands of jobs in early care and education are not for everyone. “It takes a special person to work with 12 2-year-olds. Not everyone can do those jobs,” says Snyder. She describes the ARPA funds the Center received to stay open during the Covid-19 pandemic as “a life buoy that kept things from sinking.” Snyder has been able to leverage those funds to compete with the rising minimum wage in Virginia, but even so, it’s still less than what many big box stores in her area pay.
“Even with the increase [from ARPA funds], the child care centers aren’t keeping up with what people are making in other jobs. More money is needed and flexible money is key,” said Wirgau. “There are restrictions on how it can be used, and that puts some additional burden on the child care centers, and it affects the rest of their workforce and business model. The more flexible it can be, the better.”
Even with the money slated to arrive this fall, it must be spent by July 2026, and then it will be up to New River Valley and the child care centers to find additional funds to keep salary levels at that same rate. Wirgau plans to work with local governments, businesses and higher education institutions to build the base of funding sources so that any program that is piloted with the ARPA funds will have the potential to be expanded or continued. “This project is proof of concept,” she said. “When you invest a million dollars focusing on child care, then you are able to serve more kids and have higher quality centers.” By trying things out locally, “we can see if we can get some traction in a way that businesses and local governments will allocate funding to that as well.”
She points to an example in 2022, when the Community Foundation and Virginia Tech formed a partnership to host both in-person and virtual summits with business and government leaders each quarter. “Through these summits, we’ve shared ways that employers have supported child care in our region already, provided data on the impact of child care access to the broader economy, and begun engaging attendees in planning for the end of the ARPA dollars. We are trying to be as proactive as possible in developing local funding sources while creating a group of leaders who can be strong advocates for continued funding at the state and federal levels.”
For Lourdie, the increase in salary for her work as a child care provider can’t come soon enough, and she is not entirely sure she will still be there in the fall when the first payments are expected, especially without the certainty of how long the payments will continue. “I believe that if I were paid more, then I would know my needs are being taken care of. Then I can be focused, be 100% there, and not have to worry when I get home. Even now, I give it my all, then I get in my car and say, ‘what’s next?’ As soon as I get home, it’s ‘how am I going to pay the next bill?’”