Biden’s child-care plan might make things harder for family caregivers

 

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Zonia Sanchez begins work at 6 a.m. and remains on the clock until 5 p.m., taking care of her four grandchildren, ages 2 months, 3, 5 and 11 years. She logs her hours into a notebook, and submits the total each month to the Child Care Resource Center (CCRC) in Palmdale, Calif., where she lives. She’s paid different hourly rates for each child – $3.61 per hour for the 3-year-old, $3.34 for the 5-year-old, and $2.63 for the 11-year-old. She doesn’t yet receive any payment for the baby because his paperwork hasn’t been processed through the system yet.

“These are my grandkids and my daughter has to work,” Sanchez says. (She primarily speaks Spanish, and her interview was conducted through a translator.) “If it wasn’t for me, who would take care of my baby for no pay?”

Sanchez, 59, is one of an estimated 5 million Family, Friend, and Neighbor (or FFN) child-care providers in the United States. In more than 40 states, including California, the work she does is eligible for payment, even though she doesn’t have a child-care license.

If the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan becomes law, the costs associated with child care could change dramatically. Many more subsidies will be available to many more families, and those subsidies will give providers – many of whom make poverty wages – more money. But there’s a caveat: Under BBB, all providers are required to be licensed, including FFN providers who have traditionally not needed a license to perform care. With the United States on the brink of a historic investment in child care, what role will FFN providers play in our future system?

Family, Friend and Neighbor Care (also referred to as informal care, kith-and-kin care, kin care, relative care, legally unlicensed, and license-exempt care) is the most common form of nonparental care in the United States, with estimates of the proportion of working parents using this care ranging from one third to over one half. It is most heavily relied upon for low-income families, families of color, and those with nontraditional work schedules. During the covid-19 pandemic, many families came to rely primarily on FFN providers as other child-care settings closed or limited their enrollment.

Currently, only a small fraction of families that qualify for child care subsidies actually receive them — and the vast majority of children receiving subsidies (75%) typically attend licensed child-care centers. Only 2% of the children receiving CCDF subsidies utilize FFN caregivers like Sanchez in the child’s own home.”

Julia Gutierrez-Albrecht is a family services coordinator for Head Start, a federal government program that provides early education to low-income families in Sanilac County, Mich. A rural county in the thumb of the state, Sanilac is home to 3,000 kids under the age of 5, with only 500 licensed pre-K spots available – qualifying the area as a “child-care desert.” The sheer lack of supply across the country leaves families like Gutierrez-Albrecht’s to rely on licensed-exempt options for child care. Her 85-year-old grandfather brings a flashlight on dark mornings when he comes to her house to help get her 4- and 7-year-old off to school. Some days her aunt, a retired schoolteacher, takes the kids to school.

“I hear so many times from the families I work with, and they have no one,” Gutierrez-Albrecht said. “It made me think of how lucky I am. I would not be able to do what I do without them.”

Despite the popularity of FFN care, providers fortunate enough to be paid through state subsidies make significantly less money than if they were doing the same work as licensed providers. And even licensed home-based providers often receive lower subsidy reimbursement rates than center-based providers.

Sanchez’s monthly payment is around $1,100 a month, which is not much for 45-hour workweeks, even in a notoriously low-wage industry like child care. Five years ago, Sanchez looked into applying for a child-care license, but found the process onerous and balked at the costly modifications needed inside her home to qualify, such as adding gates, changing the carpet and floors, and having everyone in the household fingerprinted.

Requirements like these make sense for large centers where parents need assurances that their children will be safe in the company of strangers, but families who rely on FFN often use a different calculus: this may be an individual they trust, or someone they feel is part of their community, where there is a shared language, cultural or values connection.

In many cases, FFN care gives working parents flexibility in their schedules that traditional child-care centers (with their fixed hours and sometimes rigid minimum attendance requirements) cannot provide, regardless of the family’s mixed needs. It also allows children from one family in a range of ages, like Sanchez’s four grandchildren, to spend more of their day together, rather than separating kids by age.

The details of what licensing will entail moving forward are not spelled out in Build Back Better; it will be up to the states and the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with what the parameters will look like and how FFN providers would be included.

“People who know what licensing looks like today are assuming it will look the same way tomorrow, but it’s not a fair assumption,” said Julie Kashen, a child-care expert with the Century Foundation, a think tank. Kashen suggests that while the states must determine licensing standards to establish baseline quality standards, they should not be overly burdensome and could be anything from taking a CPR class to signing up for an FFN list online, and that it will be designed with feedback from the groups most affected, including FFN providers themselves.

An influx of resources to the child-care system has the potential to alter the entire child-care landscape for the better, explains Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy for Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on early child development.

“It will allow for better training, support and reimbursement, which will in turn benefit all types of child care – FFN included,” Cole said. “We would not have supported licensing if we did not believe the resources would be there to support the investments in the workforce. And we know this workforce is critical. The relationships they form with their caregivers are so important.”

It will be up to states to be inclusive regarding who is at the table in determining licensing requirements and quality tiers, and to bring FFN providers into the fold to map out what our future child care system will look like. “You can’t separate the two,” said Cole. “The goal is to be inclusive, and the goal is also to make sure the resources are there and clear pathways to go along with it.”

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Rebecca Gale is a reporting fellow with Better Life Lab at New America, and has written extensively about child care and early education.

 

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