Darcy Leone with her grandchildren in 2020 at the day...

Darcy Leone with her grandchildren in 2020 at the day care in her Lake Ronkonkoma home. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

This is a precarious moment for child care in New York.

The $24 billion in stimulus funds Congress set aside for child care during the COVID-19 pandemic will expire at the end of this month. Child care programs could close, or become shadows of themselves. The impact could be devastating. 

That makes the conclusions of a state Labor Department report released this week even more worrisome, though they're not at all surprising. 

Among the report's findings: The average annual price of center-based full-time child care is a strikingly unaffordable $21,826 for infants, making New York the most expensive state nationwide. The number of providers has fallen. The state's licensed facilities have the capacity to care for only half the children who might need it.

And 64% of New Yorkers — including those on Long Island — live in a child care desert, with three or more children for every available licensed child care slot. Nassau averages 3.1 children under 6 years old per child care slot. Suffolk is worse, at 3.5. Upstate, there are counties approaching 9 children per slot.

Meanwhile, parents in Nassau spend 11.8% of their income on center-based child care; in Suffolk that figure rises to 13.3%.

That ripples through the economy in dangerous ways. As more women with young children live in child care deserts and as their costs rise, their participation in the labor force drops. Nassau County's labor force participation rate for women with kids under 6 stands at 77%; Suffolk's at 75.2%. That's lower than some parts of the state, but significantly higher than the national rate of 66.5%, possibly in part due to a high cost of living that forces both parents to work.

All of that could worsen as the stimulus spigot closes, if child care prices continue to rise or centers continue to close.

The work-life balancing act has existed for generations. But COVID, said Shital Patel, the labor market analyst with the state Labor Department's Hicksville office, "brought the child care issue into sharp focus."

The state's report portends trouble for the regional and statewide job market — a warning employers, economists, policymakers and elected officials should heed.

"Obviously, the labor force participation for mothers in New York State is really important," Patel said. "So, I think employers, if they want to keep mothers in the workforce, need to focus on workplace flexibility, including remote work, flexible hours and other arrangements to help mothers balance their careers with child care responsibilities."

And it's not just moms. Men are increasingly grappling with these issues, too. 

The "gold standard," Patel said, comes when employers offer on-site child care. But that's rare.

Patel noted that the state — and Long Island's Regional Economic Development Council — have prioritized the issue. But this is going to get worse before it gets better. And there's no short-term solution in sight.

The child care conundrum is best illustrated by examining child care workers themselves. The state report showed that child care professionals would have to spend a shocking 62% of their own income to pay for center-based care for their own children.

That's clearly unsustainable. And consider this: 12% of New York's child care workers fall below the poverty line, compared with 5% of all other workers.

For many, the only solution is to turn to another better-paying job.

But even then, they'd still need child care. The disconcerting — yet very real — question is whether there'll be anyone left to provide it. 

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.


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