Letter to the editor.
This is a letter to the editor from Anna Kelles, Tompkins County Legislator and a candidate for NYS Assembly District 125. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Managing Editor Thomas Giery Pudney at tgpudney@ithacavoice.com.

Last week, families across NY learned that schools will remain shuttered for the remainder of the school year. Parents and caregivers are overwhelmed and stretched thin by the herculean effort of juggling jobs and childcare needs. To make matters worse, essential community resources like GIAC, Ithaca Youth Bureau, and Cortland Youth Bureau have closed down for the spring and summer. Families are scrambling to figure out who will care for their children when the economy opens back up.

Lack of access to affordable, reliable, and quality childcare is one of the most consequential issues facing working families in NY. COVID-19 has merely highlighted a problem families have long been struggling to solve.

The majority of families are expected to go it alone when it comes to paying for daycare and early education. Care for an infant costs families an average of $15,000 in NY according to Child Care Aware of America. The prohibitive cost of care is a large part of why only 1/3 of young children in Tompkins and Cortland counties have childcare, and less than 20% of low-income families who are eligible for childcare subsidies are receiving them (statistics from the Child Development Council).

Childcare costs eat up, on average, 24% of a middle-income family’s earnings. About 40% of able-bodied adults who could be working are not even looking for work, and in many cases due to the cost of childcare. For many the question comes down to, “Why get a job if I have to turn over the bulk of my paycheck to pay for childcare – which I only need because of the job in the first place?”

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people affected by this situation are women – those historically expected by default to serve as full-time childcare providers over any other career path. Without affordable options, women are forgoing advancing their careers, starting businesses, seeking higher education, paying off debt, and becoming homeowners. This stifling of economic advancement, security, and independence affects not only women, but also our economy as a whole.

Access to affordable daycare and early childhood education are fundamental economic development issues. So what can we do to fix this system? In fact, quite a bit.

New York State needs to increase investment in early childcare programs.

Although there are federal and state subsidies for low income families (up to 200% the national poverty line), that funding is insufficient. Subsidies are often on a first-come, first-served basis, so once aid is claimed for the year, many are left without it. Yet, according to research from the Workforce Development Institute (WDI), a $3.6 billion investment would not only make care available to all NYS children, but also it would lead to the creation of 80,000 new jobs and $6.7 billion in new spending when parents are freed up to join the workforce.

Childcare workers (who we now appreciate more than ever as “essential”) need to be paid better and providers need to be supported.

According to the Empire State Campaign for Child Care (ESCCC), 65% of early learning professionals are on some form of public assistance. Many are making just above minimum wage despite having bachelors or masters degrees. Often, early learning centers become a training ground for the school districts as childcare workers are forced to try to change jobs as quickly as possible to earn more money. Not only is this disruptive and heartbreaking for the teachers who have built relationships with children and families, but also it exacerbates the already high true cost of care for businesses to continually hire and train new staff for their facilities.

We need to foster a culture of valuing early childhood education and care.

We already support public funding for elementary through high school education. It is important that we expand this support to younger children, during the period of greatest developmental potential. About 85% of the human brain is formed within the first 3 years of life. Missing this critical window is like building a family home with no foundation.

As plans are being made in Albany to re-open the economy, childcare and education providers and advocates need to be at the policy table. Without childcare, the economy cannot re-open. As our communities and state endure this economic downturn, universal access to childcare and early childhood education are more essential than ever. By lifting the heavy burden of childcare expenses off of families, all New Yorkers will have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

We will recover from this COVID crisis. Through this recovery, we have a unique opportunity to cultivate a society that is more equitable and economically sound. Local, state, and federal investments will be made to foster this recovery in the months and years to come. Where we choose to invest will be a reflection of our priorities. Let’s prioritize our children’s futures.

Anna Kelles

Tompkins County Legislator and candidate for New York State Assembly District 125