California Child Care System on Brink of Collapse, Study Says

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Yolanda Wilson works for Nancy Mackey's child care center in West Oakland. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

A report out Wednesday from UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment finds an already taxed industry is struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of the Center Lea Austin said the coronavirus is having a wide-reaching, negative impact on the child care system.

“This workforce is very concerned about their own health risks. It finds that programs are financially struggling," she said. "I think we have had a sense for many months now that the child care system, in the middle of this pandemic, is really on the verge of collapse.”

The survey of nearly 1,000 providers shows about 80% are taking care of fewer kids because of health and safety restrictions, which leads to less income. Centers are also seeing increased cleaning and staffing costs. Austin said that scenario is unsustainable for the majority of providers.

She said there was already a child care shortage before COVID-19 and the pandemic is going to make it worse.

“Bottom line is that there will be less child care available," Austin said. "And if there's less child care available, then there's less opportunity for working parents to be able to utilize child care."

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That could lead to more parents leaving the workforce. Clinical social worker Micaela Mota works with people who have severe mental illness who are also homeless, or vulnerable to becoming homeless. Her work is considered essential by the state and Mota said she couldn't do it without child care for her one-year-old son.

"In order for me to be able to be focused, and in order for me to be able to give my attention to the population that needs their essential workers to be on point, I need child care," she said. "There's no way I can go ahead and try to deescalate one of my clients from having any sort of self-harm with a one-year-old right next to me."

Mota is one of the few lucky essential workers receiving state assistance for child care during the pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized $100 million to support child care services during COVID-19. Half of the money went to providing up to 20,000 limited-term additional state-subsidized slots for child care. The recently passed state budget also included $73 million to continue paying for that care. In addition, the state received more than $350 million from the federal government for child care-related costs.

Still, the money isn't enough to stabilize the industry. The UC Berkeley report finds the system needs a huge boost in government funding to help providers stay open.

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Austin said the demographic profile of the typical child care providers may also be a factor in why there's not a larger public outcry for more funding of the industry. Providers are overwhelmingly women and, in California, women of color. A group, she notes, whose work has been historically undervalued.

"I think that's part of what's playing out here," she said. "There has long been an expectation that women of color, and low-income women, are serving other families. (But) without attention to what that means for the women providing those services, or to their own families."

Austin said there were more than 100,000 people in California being paid to provide child care before the pandemic. She said many stand to lose those jobs unless the industry receives more support.