This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal November 19, 2020. 

By Chuck Denny, Cori Gadansky, and Rose Smith

Child care is essential.

Never in modern times have we experienced greater understanding of the vital role that child care providers play in our community.

Parents rely on safe, affordable child care – whether at a licensed center or a home-based setting – to be able to work. Employers depend on reliable child care options to recruit and retain employees. Young children count on child care to help them develop the social-emotional skills needed to get ready for Kindergarten and beyond.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has made undeniably clear to all of us is that child care is the foundation of a thriving economy, and the current infrastructure to support it is abysmal.

This year’s KIDS COUNT County Data Book tells us that even before the pandemic, half of Kentuckians lived in a child care desert, meaning there wasn’t enough capacity to meet the need. Data show that pre-pandemic, 14% of Kentucky parents quit a job, did not take a job or greatly changed their job due to problems with child care.

Even those with proximity to care struggle to pay for it. With the cost of high quality child care rivaling the cost of college tuition, child care expenses for an infant take up more than a third of a single parent’s income. Even in two-parent families, parents of young children tend to be at the beginning of their earning potential and simply don’t have the ability to bear the full cost of care.

Yet, unlike K-12 public schools, public investment in child care is minimal. As a result, in order for Trinity House to keep our doors open, we are forced to operate with rates below the true cost of care and pay our teachers less than they deserve. The median child care educator salary in Kentucky is about half of what a public preschool teacher is paid.

The median hourly wage for a child care worker is $9.28 – just two dollars more than minimum wage. What’s more, women of color make up a large percentage of the early childhood workforce and are shouldering the weight of our underinvestment, often living in poverty while working to lift other families out of it. With the pandemic, they now face a double threat to both their health and their livelihood.

Simultaneously, the entire fragile ecosystem of child care reels from closures, lack of access to PPE, and limitations on the number of children who can be served, due to COVID-19.

Rose Smith, Trinity House

Trinity House has been in business for over 20 years. What started as a small business in my basement has grown to a full-fledged center, with the capacity to care for 88 children and employing 13 staff. My husband and I have had to sacrifice to maintain this business. Along with our staff, we aren’t getting paid what we deserve, but our community we serve needs us and we cannot turn our backs on them.

Cori Gadansky, 4-C

Community Coordinated Child Care (4-C) celebrates our 50th anniversary this year. For half a century, 4-C has worked to improve the quality, availability, and accessibility of child care in Kentuckiana. While we have encountered many challenges, none has posed a greater threat to our child care sector than the pandemic.

Chuck Denny, PNC

Through a $150,000 grant from the PNC Foundation’s Grow Up Great initiative, 4-C is offering PPE to child care providers and supporting the launch of at least five new certified family child care homes in the Louisville area because we know the essential role that child care plays to help our community weather this pandemic and sustain our economy, but we cannot do it alone.

It’s time to admit that status quo wasn’t working for anyone in Kentucky – not parents, not employers, not child care providers, and certainly not our children. With the compounding challenges of a global pandemic, child care cannot sustain to support our families, our workforce, or our economy.

Looking ahead to the 2021 General Assembly, state legislators must make funding for child care a top priority in their budget deliberations. In addition, we need to do everything we can to encourage the growth of regulated family child care – care offered in private homes to a small number of children – to fill gaps in access.

Most importantly, federal support is imperative to overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19 and not only save the sector but build the child care infrastructure that Kentucky needs. Federal CARES Act funds provided early in the pandemic provided emergency relief to child care providers, but those funds have all been expended. We need Congress to act on this now. There is no time to lose.

Chuck Denny is the regional president for PNC. Cori Gadansky is the executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care (4-C). Rose Smith is the owner and executive director of Trinity House, a child care center in the Parkland Neighborhood and founder and executive director the ACE Project.