By: Kristin McSwain, Executive Director, Boston Opportunity Agenda
Elizabeth Pauley, Associate Vice President, Education to Career, the Boston Foundation
and Karley Ausiello, Sr. Vice President, Community Impact, United Way of Mass Bay and the Merrimack Valley
Note: This post is adapted from testimony given to the City of Boston’s Equitable Recovery Task Force on September 15.
It’s hard to fathom, but it is now officially more than 18 months since the beginning of the business shutdowns, school closings and other disruptions that marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The days and weeks since March 2020 have placed unprecedented burdens on our early education system - and as the city and region invest in the challenging climb to an equitable recovery, our experience and our data point to a simple message. That there can be no equitable recovery without an intentional and sizable investment in the early childcare workforce.
Early education is essential infrastructure for a healthy economy. COVID-19 revealed to the entire country what the early education and care field has known for years: Childcare is the backbone of our economy. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the heavy loss of women in the workforce over this past year, including those who have stopped seeking employment, is due to the drop in childcare capacity in the Commonwealth, and yet women’s labor force participation is a key driver to economic growth.
Boston’s investment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds must address the long-standing and worsening shortage of childcare, by investing in the educators who lead and staff childcare classrooms. There is a long standing need to create a stable, justly compensated and well-trained workforce. In 2017, for example, one third of families in Boston did not have access to the childcare they wanted. The pandemic made it worse. According to a 2021 analysis from the Boston Opportunity Agenda, between December 2017 to March 2021, Boston experienced a 21% decrease in the number of licensed center-based and family child care providers. The result? Almost half of Boston’s families that are seeking child care can’t find it.
Driving this shortage is the lack of childcare staff to keep childcare classrooms open and thriving in centers and family child care. Without a strategy to stabilize the workforce, this shortage will continue to slow the citywide recovery from COVID-19. An investment in this sector is an investment in women of color and immigrants who have born a disproportionate burden during the pandemic. The early education workforce is widely diverse with 47% identifying as Hispanic/Latinx, 22% as Black and African American and 9% as Asian. In a 2019 survey from University Massachusetts Boston, 40% of center-based educators reported worrying about having enough money for food, 67% report not being able to pay monthly bills, 33% of educators report using at least one public benefit on a yearly basis. Early educators are among the most vital workers in the City of Boston’s social infrastructure, but many remain in precarious economic circumstances that threaten to push them out of the field and consign them to a life of poverty.
Investment of ARPA funding in the following ways will expand the availability of quality childcare and help our city recover from COVID while continuing to build a robust system to support employers, young children and families.
Childcare infrastructure has proven itself to be critical to the sectors of education, public health and the city’s economy. Yet not all families can access this critical infrastructure. The Baker-Polito Administration’s “Future of Work” report released in July 2021 surveyed Massachusetts families and found that 13 percent of respondents with children said they might resume working or enter the workforce if they had access to additional childcare. Whether in Massachusetts or Boston, our economy cannot afford to leave 13 percent of working families on the sidelines of the economy, solely due to lack of childcare. As parents in Boston return to the workplace in person, it is critical that the city of Boston focus time, attention and resources (including ARPA funding) on increasing the number of high quality childcare seats available to families in the city of Boston.