Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” are LaTonya Mitchell, a home child care provider based on the South Side; Atena Danner, associate director of learning and facility with the Erikson Institute; Shauna Ejeh, senior vice president of programs for Illinois Action for Children; and Lisa Russell, West Side delegate with the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues. Russell is also a grandmother of three children between the ages of 3 and 6; she helps her daughter with child care. (Produced by Blair Paddock)
Child care providers and advocates are warning that the country is on the edge of a child care cliff as pandemic-era federal funds are set to expire at the end of the month. But some say that cliff is more like quicksand.
A report from the Century Foundation shows without that federal funding, thousands of providers would no longer be able to hire and pay staff, meaning rapid shutdowns in families with small children fending for themselves. The report estimates 3.2 million kids nationwide could lose care.
In Illinois alone, the report said, an estimated 128,200 children could be without child care, while more than 2,800 child care programs could close.
“This could have a great impact on my business,” said Latonya Mitchell, a home child care provider on Chicago’s South Side. “To take (away the pandemic funding) would just be devastating. A lot of us, including myself, could close our doors. And if we close our doors, then where would the children go?”
According to the Century Foundation report, the absence of federal funds could result in a loss of 11,360 child care jobs in Illinois.
Mitchell, who has been licensed in this work since 2005, said child care providers simply do not make much money, so any additional funding they can receive is crucial to keeping home providers’ doors open.
“We have to pay staff $15 (per hour) because I’m in the city of Chicago. (Pandemic funding) doesn’t cover all the needs,” Mitchell said. “Home child care providers — we have degrees. I hold a degree. I have college debt. I know all the other providers that hold degrees, and it’s something that we hear a lot that, if, instead of being an early child care provider, if you were to join the union and work for CPS, because you have the same educational level that there’s the complaint that you could earn more doing that.”
Atena Danner, associate director of learning and facility with the Erikson Institute, said the looming cliff should come as no surprise.
“We’re already in a crisis mode,” Danner said. “There are recent reports from Birth to Five Illinois letting us know how we’re doing with child care across the state and all the regions, and the continued refrain that we hear is ‘not enough money, not enough staff, not enough facilities, not enough transportation.’ So there’s a great need for this, and it’s been known about for quite some time.”
Shauna Ejeh, senior vice president of programs for Illinois Action for Children, said she expects the impact to be more severe on lower-income families.
“I think for Black families, many of our low-income families in particular, work nontraditional hours, they may work two jobs, etc. And we know that child care serves as the backbone of the entire workforce nationally,” Ejeh said. “So without supports, with less access, less choices, it means they have to make that hard decision whether they continue to strive towards self-sufficiency or they are thrown back down into deep poverty.”
Among those families making difficult decisions is Lisa Russell’s. The West Side delegate for Community Organizing and Family Issues is a grandmother of three who helps her daughter manage her children’s complicated school and care schedule.
“My daughter was eligible for all three of our kids to go to one school,” Russell said, “and so the 3-year-old is in child care and the other two have went on to kindergarten and first grade somewhere else. That’s where I’m coming in. I got to try to get to this side of town and take these two, then try to get back to town and get the 3-year-old.”
Additionally, Russell said a recent pay raise wound up locking her daughter out from some resources for child care assistance. Russell estimates an after-school program could run $800 per month.
Though it’s not a new situation, Danner said recent events and economic conditions have exacerbated the crisis.
“I think largely because cost of living continues to go up and the funding is not matching that cost-of-living increase,” Danner said. “And so we have this situation where there’s a constant demand of something that is absolutely needed. Child care is the workforce behind the workforce. And so that lack of parity with the cost-of-living changes, COVID was devastating and really created chaos for people’s personal finances and their homes, businesses lost, jobs lost. And so it’s a domino effect of all the reasons why things cost more and yet we still have less and less. Ironically, Gov. Pritzker has funded child care in ways that have not been funded before. It’s honestly unprecedented. And so we thank the governor’s office for that funding, and still there’s so much more needed. And that tells you how dire the situation was to begin with because this loss of federal funds, … it will absolutely be devastating.”
It’s a thorny problem that Ejeh said needs attention at the federal level.
“I believe that the Smart Start Program really puts us on a path to make an impact,” Ejeh said. “Unfortunately, … the foundation was already so unstable that even though we’re looking at an influx and increased investments, we know that that will only help us maybe maintain. The efforts of the state and of the governor’s office to really increase wages is really paramount to us moving the needle, but without federal investments to back up and further sort of (infuse) the system with cash, we will still be in dire straits.”
Blair Paddock contributed to this report.