Shortage of affordable child care may have wider impact on Texas workforce, experts say

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- For the past two years, COVID-19 has loomed over families in the Houston area, and it seems that there will be no relief soon for those with young children. There is a shortage of early childhood care in Texas, which may significantly impact the workforce.

Experts from the Children at Risk non-profit organization held a virtual summit on Wednesday to discuss the impact of the challenges the workforce would face.

Early childhood educators work with children between zero to five years old. In Texas, the minimum wage for the profession is $10.15 an hour.

According to advocates, the pay is so inadequate that it ranks in the country's bottom 2% of professions.

"The way we fund K-12 is exactly how we ought to fund before kindergarten. Science shows us that 85% of brain development happens by age three," said Jim Spurlino, member of the national advisory council for the PN3 (Prenatal-to-3) Policy Impact Center.

"I wish it wasn't called child care because many public officials just don't get it. They think they think child care is babysitting. They don't understand that child care is early education."

Kim Kofron, director of early childhood care education with Children at Risk, says that brain development sets them up for a love of learning at a young age. "The brain development that happens in that age group for young children sets them up for a lifelong love of learning. It sets their brain and bodies up to enter kindergarten successfully and graduate high school and go to college."

There was already a shortage in affordable child care before the pandemic, said Kofron. Nearly half of Texas families were in a child care desert, meaning at least three children for one licensed child care slot.

After 2020, the number of child care providers dropped to 16%. In 2022, Texas' child care workforce is only at 84% of pre-pandemic levels.

Advocates say the average cost of child care for infants in Texas is $10,826, slightly higher than the average cost of public college tuition. Panelists at the summit expressed that early childhood educators need better pay.
"A talented workforce teacher can go to a fast food or convenience store and make double what they're making at the center," said Kofron. "That choice seems pretty easy to make."

In an interview with Kofron, ABC13 asked if the issue of low pay is up to the facility to address or is it a situation that goes deeper.

"Yeah, it's a deeper-rooted issue than that. We can't have 200 infants around as we can with college students. The ratio has to be lower to care and do a high-quality job," said Kofron. "The way our funding system works, it's really on our parents' backs who are paying. If you're a low-income family, you're even more strapped. It's this vicious cycle."

As a result, experts say several parents struggle to re-enter the workforce and continue their education. Kofron says there's a wider-scale economic impact from this issue.

"Texas is losing money as well. We are cutting ourselves short by not allowing all of our workforce to go back to work," Kofron said.

The cost of child care is another dilemma that families are facing. Many can't afford it and are unable to return to the workforce. In comparison, this isn't necessarily a woman's issue; it disproportionately impacts women, said CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, Leila Melendez.

"Women are more likely to work in service jobs that can't be done remotely. Women bear the brunt of child care responsibilities and are typically the first in the household to solve that child care need. They provide the care themselves rather than working in many cases," Melendez said. The state saw a 36% increase in parents leaving the workforce due to child care issues."

Last March, the federal government passed the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, which partly provided funding to counties and states to distribute to early childhood care centers.

On Wednesday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted that funding is still available to help child care centers stay afloat in this time of need.

However, experts say this is just a temporary band-aid and that we need to start thinking about what needs to be done to work towards a long-term solution.

"This is probably about mostly taxes and public policy. Things like tax credits for dependent care accounts, a tax credit for employer contributions to child care, raising the caps on pre-tax contributions, and advocating renewing the expanded Child Tax Credit, which recently expired," said Spurling. "Congress failed to renew it when it was proven to reduce child poverty by almost 30 percent. We can't let our public officials off the hook when they come up with a good idea and then fail to renew it."

"We need to change our mindset that care is not just for families. It's really for all of us. When we have children in high-quality centers, they will be better workers. When they get into that workforce 20 years from now, they will be taking care of us when we're in nursing homes," said Kofron. " I hope to see continued conversations and work across the aisle. This is a bipartisan issue. It affects families on both sides."

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