Jamaica Plain families are breathing a collective sigh of relief that public schools reopened last week, after spending the summer scrambling to piece together childcare options that don’t break the bank.
For many, this yearly upheaval entails a costly two-month reliance on paid vacation time, camps, babysitters, and if you’re really lucky, the goodwill of grandma or grandpa. But for low-income families, the challenge of securing childcare that's safe and affordable doesn't go away on September 6th. Because of unpredictable and nontraditional work hours, the steep cost of care, and the state’s woefully underfunded subsidy program, it’s a year-round hardship that Governor Charlie Baker needs to address.
The cost of child care in Massachusetts is jaw-dropping. According to Child Care Aware, care from a licensed provider in Boston costs an average of $19,700 per year. For a Jamaica Plain family with an infant and a four-year-old, that adds up to an astronomical $21,395 for family child care or $33,287 for center-based care. All of these are more expensive than a year's worth of tuition at UMass.
Subsidies are supposed to fill the gap, helping families pay for early education programs and after-school care. But right now, more than 20,000 kids across the Commonwealth are languishing on waiting lists, because the state program has been so underfunded.
As a result, parents are being forced to make heart-breaking decisions, like relying on whatever care they can find and afford. In the best-case scenarios, that’s perhaps a well-intentioned, but untrained sibling or church volunteer; at worst, it’s a dangerous and neglectful care arrangement.
Hardworking families and children deserve better. And thankfully, help may be on the horizon. The federal block grant for childcare subsidies recently received an unexpected new $2.4 billion increase, which could go a long way towards states, including Massachusetts, expanding subsidy programs and giving working families exactly the boost they need. Now the question now is: will Governor Baker answer the call?
These desperately needed federal funds coming to the Commonwealth should be used to provide relief to families and child care providers, both of whom are squeezed by an underfunded subsidy system. Maryland, Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma have already taken steps to get children off waiting lists, and Massachusetts should, too.
With the new funds available, Governor Baker can ensure that an additional 3,000 children are moved off waiting lists and receive safe, enriching care. More caregivers could keep their doors open and accommodate nontraditional schedules, too. But so far discussions about how these funds will be used have happened behind closed doors, shutting out the key stakeholders who are directly impacted by the decision.
This influx of federal funds isn't a silver bullet, but it's an important step in the right direction. Early learning sets children up for a lifetime of success, enhancing school readiness and promoting emotional development. Licensed care centers provide safe environments to play, access to nutritious food, and countless opportunities to learn and grow. They offer the structure and support the future of Massachusetts needs, and the peace of mind hardworking parents and guardians deserve.
Governor Baker has the power and the funding to prioritize care that works for working families. As a parent himself, we urge him to answer the call.
Deborah Hughes is President and CEO of Brookview House. Lindsay McCluskey is a Senior Organizer for Community Labor United. Both organizations are nonprofits.