BY MELISSA MAHONEY AND MOLLIE GORDON
It will come as no surprise to families here that the child care system is in crisis. On average, there are more than five North Carolina families competing for every available licensed child care slot, according to the nonprofit N.C. Early Education Coalition. And during a March panel discussion, CEO Marcia Whitney of the Asheville-based Verner Center for Early Learning said her organization has a waiting list of over 600 families.
It’s no secret that child care has long been too expensive and hard to find, and without policy intervention, this situation will only continue to worsen. To give Asheville families the support they need, the state legislature must prioritize tackling the multifaceted weaknesses in the child care labor market.
This is a problem many cities face, and the impacts aren’t limited to families: Lack of child care costs the U.S. an estimated $122 billion a year in lost wages, revenues and missed opportunities for training and promotions, a 2023 study found. And meanwhile, the industry is still struggling to recover from pandemic-related challenges.
Here in Asheville, however, the child care crisis is particularly sobering, and the large exodus of workers underscores this. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of child care workers in the area declined from 1,045 to 869. That’s a 16.8% decrease — twice the national average. Our research found that many of these “missing” child care workers have simply switched occupations, finding new jobs with better pay.
Low wages and poor benefits make it difficult for child care workers — who are disproportionately women and women of color — to sustain their livelihood. Despite the crucial role they play in preparing tomorrow’s citizens, the average wage for child care professionals in the U.S. is only $13.42 an hour, well below Buncombe County’s living wage of $20.10 and the national average for private-sector service workers, which is $33.36.
What’s more, low-income families, especially those who are Black or Hispanic, are particularly hard-hit by both the lack of availability and the rising cost of child care. For these families, the impact can be staggering, taking up to 35% of their income. And though subsidies are available in Asheville, there are simply too few slots where qualifying parents can actually use them.
This scarcity of options, in turn, often results in the mother or some female relative — such as a grandmother or older sister — taking on the responsibility. That makes it harder for people who want to work or go to school to do so and ultimately exacerbates broader economic inequality. Even when mothers do continue to work, they often seek part-time positions or those with flexible work hours that can more readily accommodate their child care responsibilities. But such jobs typically offer lower pay and fewer benefits, thereby contributing to the gender wage gap.
Mollie Gordon, who co-authored this commentary, recently had the opportunity to work closely with state Rep. Caleb Rudow and professor Melissa Mahoney conducting research on child care in Asheville. She’s also experienced this continuing crisis firsthand. Gordon’s son starts kindergarten this fall, and despite an extensive search for suitable child care, the best she could find was a half-day slot at a local school. And while she counts herself fortunate to have the support of her grandmother, who’s offered to care for the child during the rest of the day so Mollie can go to school and work part time, many families don’t have that option.
The good news is that thanks to several bills now being considered in Raleigh, state lawmakers have a crucial opportunity to address both low pay for workers and insufficient availability of child care. With pandemic-era federal funding for child care providers ending soon, timely intervention is needed to stave off a worsening crisis. The current proposals include a three-year pilot program aimed at developing a public-private, cost-sharing partnership; initiatives to reduce the cost of child care for working families; and action to raise the pay of child care workers, which is essential for attracting and retaining these key employees.
Together, these measures would go a long way toward giving families much-needed support. Accordingly, state lawmakers must prioritize this pressing issue during the current legislative session. It is painfully clear that the stakes for both Asheville families and our local economy are too high to permit any further delay.
Melissa Mahoney is an associate professor of economics at UNC Asheville. Mollie Gordon, a recent graduate of the school, is a former intern for state Rep. Caleb Rudow. Use this tool to identify your state lawmakers; contact info for them is available here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect more recent numbers concerning the economic impact of the child care crisis.