Legislature eyes changes in childcare system

Experts say status quo was inadequate pre-COVID

RARELY HAS THE ISSUE of childcare received such sustained attention from the state Legislature. But with the pandemic calling renewed attention to the economic importance of childcare, two state panels this week are beginning to dig into the issue. Both experts and legislative leaders say returning to the way things were before is not sufficient.

“Going back to the status quo is not really an option,” said Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, who plans to speak to a Senate committee on “Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency” on Wednesday. “We have to build something new and better,” she said. “We didn’t have what we needed before. We won’t have what we needed after.”

The Senate Committee, chaired by Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, is holding a series of listening sessions on improving life as the pandemic recedes. On Wednesday, it plans to hear from experts on childcare and education, both K-12 and higher education.

Separately, a Special Legislative Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission, chaired by Education Committee Chairs Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester, met for the first time Tuesday.

Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy told that committee at its virtual meeting that childcare must be a key component of the post-COVID recovery effort. “We’re hearing this from employers and employees how important childcare is to the overall economic recovery, to helping people get back to work,” he said.

Childcare has emerged as a major issue in the pandemic, with statistics showing that women have left the workforce in droves due to a loss of school and childcare. Kashen wrote a report in which she  estimated lost wages nationally would amount to $64.5 billion a year if the levels of maternal participation in the labor force during the April 2020 lockdown persisted.

That figure is a worst-case scenario since economic conditions have drastically improved since then. But there is some evidence that women continue to struggle to balance caregiving responsibilities and work. According to Kennealy, 250,000 Massachusetts residents are still unemployed, and 50 to 60 percent are women.

Both Peisch and Lewis stressed in statements opening their committee meeting that the pandemic has called attention to and exacerbated long-standing problems with the early education system’s accessibility and affordability. “Too many families cannot afford the high cost of early education and childcare. Too many providers are barely able to survive,” Lewis said.

Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said even before COVID there were “childcare deserts,” areas where families had limited access to childcare, either geographically or because of income.

Since COVID, Aigner-Treworgy said, 83 percent of childcare providers have reopened, representing 87 percent of licensed capacity. But that is not the actual capacity, since many of those programs are operating with smaller numbers, primarily due to staffing shortages.

Enrollment is also fluctuating as family situations change. The state typically subsidizes tuition for 55,000 low-income children, but current enrollment is around 42,500.

Advocates have been using the pandemic to push for more public investment in childcare. Kashen, who spoke to reporters on a Zoom call, said there is a need for more money in the system to both stabilize the industry and make care affordable.

Even before COVID, Kashebn said, center care for an infant cost on average $21,000 a year in Massachusetts – making it economically unfeasible for some parents to work. Meanwhile, the median average wage for a childcare worker was just $14 an hour. And, she noted, childcare tends not to be available to families where parents work off-hours like nights and weekends. During COVID, she said, the problem worsened as some childcare providers permanently closed while others went into personal debt to stay open.

“The more public investment means we can pay providers better, make it affordable for families, and build the supply they need,” Kashen said.