Every parent knows that raising a child is a full-time job. But for many parents who also work outside the home, including 28-year-old mother of four Nastassia Hearst, the burden of finding affordable and quality child care compounds an already demanding role.
“I don’t have child care,” Hearst explains between the sounds of giggles, wails and baby talk as her children play around her. “It’s not that it’s not doable, it just makes it more difficult.”
And Hearst is not alone. Over 9,000 children younger than 6 live in Buncombe County households in which both parents or the sole parent works, and where average monthly market rates for care in a four-star child care center hover around $879 per month, according to data from the Child Care Services Association.
And while more than 1,500 Buncombe children received care through state-funded vouchers that reduce the costs for working parents, hundreds remain on the waiting list for assistance.
For Hearst, who is currently on the waitlist for vouchers for her two youngest children, the shortage of available aid means putting her career as an art instructor on hold.
“I really don’t have too many options but to stay home with the children,” Hearst says.
While both men and women experience the high cost of child care, the lack of affordable options for parents most often affects working women who forgo careers to care for children, says Jodi Rhoden of the YWCA of Asheville
“If affordable child care is accessible to women, then women can go to school, women can go to work, they can uplift their families, and they can uplift themselves,” Rhoden explains. “If affordable child care is not accessible, then they can’t do those things.”
To address this, the YWCA provides a variety of five-star child care programs that promote healthy child development while also supporting parents’ professional goals, Rhoden says. For those “at a crossroads in their lives,” the YWCA’s Empowerment Childcare program provides up to 12 hours of free child care to allow a woman time to seek support services or go to a job interview.
Achieving greater equity in child care goes beyond providing more slots and financial aid for parents, Rhoden says.
“It’s our job to empower all women, not just women who are working and putting their children in child care,” Rhoden says. “Those child care workers also deserve to have the resources they need to live a quality life. That’s not going to be able to be remedied until we have adequate funding for our early childhood education programs.”
Making child care more widely available also makes good business sense, say local economic development officials. Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, says that Buncombe County’s tight labor market has brought the unemployment rate to a 45-year low. That’s good news for job seekers, says Ramsey, but if parents have limited availability or are unable to work at all due to child care commitments, then neither the potential employees nor local businesses can benefit from their skills and labor.
“[A shortage of child care is] hard on our economy, because employers are unable to fill their positions, so those economic activities can’t happen,” Ramsey says. “Employers are unable to meet their workforce needs, and economic growth is often determined by your population growth, and the labor force participation rate, and by the productivity of your workers.”
Sharing the costs
While state-funded vouchers are available for some parents, factors such as children’s age and parents’ income levels determine eligibility. Parents whose children are younger than 6 and who earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level, or those whose children are 6 and older and earn up to 130% of the federal poverty level, may be eligible for a voucher.
The vouchers, however, don’t cover the full cost of tuition. Parents are also expected to put 10% of their gross monthly income toward the provider’s private-pay rate, a fee that Amy Barry, executive director of the nonprofit Buncombe Partnership for Children, says many parents don’t see coming.
“These are lower-income, working, poor families, and the reason they were getting a voucher is because they couldn’t afford private rates,” Barry says. “Some families can do it, but we’ve had situations where families have contacted us and said, ‘I was so happy I got a voucher, and then I realized that I was also responsible for paying the difference between that and my copay to get up to the private rate, and I simply can’t do it. I had to take my child out.’”
Parents also experience difficulty when searching for providers willing to accept the voucher. Due to what Barry calls “historically low” reimbursement rates, many providers don’t participate in the program. While the same standards and rating system apply to all child care providers statewide, reimbursement rates vary by county.
“For example, if you were to take all of the [Buncombe County] slots that are currently supported by child care vouchers, and you were to look at what those slots with the value of those vouchers would be in Wake County, we would be losing about $5 million a year,” Barry explains. “Each [Buncombe] voucher is worth a couple hundred dollars less per month, per child, yet providers have to provide that same quality.”
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners created the Early Childhood Education and Development Fund in October, allocating $3.6 million annually to support and expand local child care services. The fund’s objectives include developing a coordinated, system-based approach to providing more child care slots in the county; promoting the affordability of quality child care for both parents and care providers; creating an education pathway for early learning careers; and responding to the needs of families impacted by issues such as trauma, poverty and addiction.
A lack of teachers and funding assistance has resulted in the loss of 620 Buncombe County child care slots during the last 10 years, according to Barry.
Phillip Hardin, economic services director for Buncombe County, says “a whole string of regulations,” many of which are mandated by the federal government, define required qualifications for caregivers. The N.C. Division of Childhood Development and Early Education’s website lists a number of options an aspiring teacher may pursue to fulfill education requirements, but enrolling in classes and building a portfolio requires time and money.
The Christine W. Avery Learning Center on Hill Street opened in 2015 with five students in an after-school program, says CiCi Weston, the center’s executive director. Today, the center has expanded to include an early learning program and serves a total of 182 students in the two programs. Navigating the state’s rules and regulations is the most challenging part of her job, Weston says.
While Weston agrees with the importance of education for early learning staff members, she muses, “If I’ve got somebody in here who’s really good with kids, really good with the families and doesn’t have the education, then why would I trade them out for somebody who has the education but may not be good with the kids or with the families?”
In those situations, Weston supports the employee in obtaining the necessary qualifications. That way, she says, “The staff’s going to stay here, the families are going to stay here, and more families are going to want to come.”
In addition to the barriers presented by educational requirements, many child care providers are aging out of the workforce, Barry says. She cites the closures of Calvary Baptist Church’s child care program and Casa dei Bambini, a bilingual preschool in West Asheville, as local examples of providers leaving the business.
Filling the gap
Today, Barry works toward teacher recruitment and training efforts, a task she took on in 2018 to help alleviate the current shortage of early childhood educators. She and her co-workers piloted a new program that provides training, guided classroom observations, coaching and enrollment in A-B Tech’s early childhood education program.
“Last summer, through our work with the Asheville Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative, the Buncombe Partnership for Children made the decision that there is no quick fix to this shortage of early educators,” Barry explains. “It’s a little bit outside of our work to engage in recruitment and training of providers to join the workforce, but who else is going to do it? We’ve got to do it.”
Once participants complete the educational requirements, participants become substitute teachers. Now in its second cohort, the program has placed many of its original participants in full-time positions.
Hearst stumbled upon the Workforce Development Program while seeking child care options. She enrolled when she learned that the program provided a rare opportunity to gain skills while her children received care.
“It took a lot of stress off me being able to take them to the same place where I was learning,” says Hearst. “I would love to take advantage of other opportunities to learn as much as I can about children, because I think it’s something that can affect not just a parent but a community.”
Recently, Hearst graduated from the program and was offered work at a five-star preschool program. But despite being highly motivated, the challenges of working full time and caring for her children stymied her ambitions. Hearst says that she plans to pursue the opportunity — as soon as more affordable child care options become available.