Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that what's currently proposed for early childhood is $96.7M — $66.7M in Gov. Shapiro’s original budget plus an additional $30 million House Democrats are recommending.
Across Pennsylvania, early childhood educators are leaving the low-paying, high stress profession, causing a severe staffing shortage and long waiting lists for the quality childcare programs that remain open, according to several nonprofits studying the worrying trend and its economic cost.
Children First, joined Start Strong PA and the YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties in a recent presentation outlining the depth of the crisis and calling for action. All the nonprofits share a focus on improving the lives of children in the state.
The annual cost of the “childcare crisis” in the state, is $6.65 billion, said a report from Ready Nation, part of Council for a Strong America, a national, bipartisan nonprofit working with business executives and others to build a skilled workforce.
Taxpayers, parents and employers are all feeling the consequences of inadequate childcare options, Stephen Doster, the council’s state director told the meeting at the Doylestown branch of YMCA.
“Without childcare, our Pennsylvania families can’t go to work,” he said. “It is the workforce behind the workforce.”
The organization’s 2022 study found a “staggering” difference between its 2018 findings and last year’s. Not only has the annual economic cost nearly doubled from $3.5 billion, the number of people reporting they’ve been late to work rose from 48 percent to 58 percent. The number of those quitting went from 17 percent to 29 percent and those missing a full day of work was up from 46 percent to 58 percent. The number of employees let go or fired due to lack of insufficient childcare rose from 17 percent to 29 percent, the study found.
“If we don’t do something to pull out of this childcare crisis, what will happen?” Doster asked of the local and state officials and other policymakers in the audience.
The $96.7M that’s proposed for PA Child Care Works — with $66.7M in Gov. Shapiro’s original budget plus the additional $30 million House Democrats are proposing — would be appreciated, but it does not come close to what’s needed, the experts said.
Heather Cronin, a mother of four, expressed the concerns of many working women. “I was written up for being late” when her childcare was unavailable. “There’s pressure to work, there’s pressure to stay home,” she said.
With no law requiring employers to have paid family leave in the state, Cronin said she feared being furloughed during the pandemic because she needed time off for maternity leave.
Mai Miksic, the early childhood policy director with Children First, said there’s also “good news.”
“There has never been more people who see the importance of early childhood education…it’s a unified belief.”
To better understand how Pennsylvania has gotten to such a concerning place, Miksic pointed to wages of early childhood teachers, who, in 2021, earned $12.43 per hour, less than $25,844 per year. In Bucks County, she said, earnings were $12.31.
In every Pennsylvania county, those earnings failed to meet the cost-of-living, according to the Children First report. Racial disparities, too, with Black educators earning approximately 2 percent less than their white counterparts.
“Wages are so low,” said Zane Moore, president and CEO of YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties, “half of all early childhood workers qualify for state benefits such as SNAP (food assistance) and most work second and third jobs to support their families.”
Saying the “early childhood workforce is on the brink of collapse,” Children First found almost 50 percent of these educators don’t plan to — or are unsure if they will — stay in their jobs in the next five years. More than half (53 percent) said higher salary is the “most important factor” in staying with their employer.
Robin Kennedy, a preschool teacher for some 40 years, said she loves her work, but, “it’s hard and it’s extremely skilled and there’s a lack of respect.”
The pay, she stressed is low. Her family, she said, went without heat. “No one wants to make these long-term sacrifices. It’s impossible to find people who want to choose this as a career.”
Significant investment is needed, the speakers agreed, to avert further erosion of early childhood education in Pennsylvania. Support and leadership is required from state legislators, private/public partnerships, childcare tax credits for parents and regulatory reform.