Washington may avoid child care cliff, but many providers are still struggling

By: - October 5, 2023 12:49 pm
With federal money running out, states are scrambling to ensure families have child care.

A report last year to the Washington state Legislature described its child care system as “broken.” (Getty Images)

Washington is unlikely to see a huge drop in child care services even as federal pandemic aid supporting providers dries up.

Expiration of the funds led to nationwide concerns that millions of children could lose care. About $24 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act was distributed to states to help keep child care centers open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding ran out on Saturday. 

Washington officials, however, say the state used most of its almost $390 million in federal child care stabilization funds, as well as new state revenue, to support child care centers beyond the pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean Washington’s system is thriving, as providers remain short-staffed following a pandemic-era dip in the workforce.

A child care task force report presented to the Legislature last December highlighted other problems in the industry, describing the state’s child care market as “broken.”

The report pointed to estimates showing child care in Washington for an infant averages about $14,500 per year – the 9th highest cost among states. At the same time, the report noted high turnover and low wages in the profession and said the poverty rate for providers was close to 18%, more than double what it is for Washington workers in general.

“In no way has Washington solved this,” said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware of Washington. “They took a big step forward, but there’s still a lot of work left to do.”

‘Growing the system’

While other states were slower to hand out  federal funding, Washington’s Legislature made “pretty reasonable choices” with their money, said Ross Hunter, Department of Children, Youth, and Families secretary. Much of the money went to providers in the thick of the pandemic when they needed it most.

As the state spent down its share of the federal dollars, it turned to other sources to support providers.

Part of this state funding came from the Fair Start for Kids Act, which passed in 2021 and uses money from Washington’s new capital gains tax to fund early learning and child care. The law also expanded child care eligibility for families and increased rates for providers.

This year, the state further broadened child care subsidies.

A new state law approved earlier this year expands eligibility guidelines for the Working Connections Child Care program. Beginning this month, the program will be open to children whose families are a part of an apprenticeship program, children of child care providers, children whose families are undocumented immigrants and children with a family member taking part in drug courts and other specialty courts.

While recent laws extended child care subsidies to thousands more families, worker shortages are an ongoing problem for providers.

Pricco said Washington is still experiencing “a full blown staffing crisis” in the child care sector.

The state estimates that about 307,000 children under the age of 5 need care because both parents are working, but only about 27% of them have access to a nearby licensed provider.

“You have to keep growing the system,” Hunter said.

Push toward universal care

Over the next few years, Washington advocates and officials will be working to develop funding options to expand and improve child care.

As part of the Fair Start for Kids Act, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families is charged with creating a new cost of care model that the state can use to set higher rates for providers.

The Legislature also set aside $500,000 to study how the state can get to a universal child care system where providers make living wages and where no family spends more than 7% of their income on care, according to the state budget. That report is due to the Legislature in 2025

“There’s a clear vision about where we’re headed,” said Allison Krutsinger, DCYF’s director of public affairs.

But a universal care model would likely add significant costs to the state budget and it could be years before it receives enough support to pass.

In the short term, Pricco said advocates will push for other changes, such as increasing mental health support for providers and expanding language access support for children and their families as well as providers.

Krutsinger said the state also needs to strengthen the provider pipeline with offerings like scholarships and no-cost credentialing and training.

“The child care industry needs more investment to be able to recruit, retain and sustain a workforce so families can afford it,” she said.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Demkovich joined the Washington State Standard in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.