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US: Why Child Care Centers in New York City Are Shutting Their Doors

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(Bloomberg) -- At the 1939 World’s Fair, the longstanding New York City social service organization Sheltering Arms showcased a novel idea for helping needy mothers: government-funded child care. The organization was home to one of the city’s first publicly funded child-care programs, which was considered a “groundbreaking approach to helping women gain employment and pull their families out of poverty.”

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New York City would expand on Sheltering Arms’ example to build an enormous yet little-known publicly funded child care system recognized for its commitment to quality care. The system survived the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the push to privatize social services in the 1980s and 1990s, and a pandemic that gutted child care nationwide.

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But now the system is being eroded. At the end of this year, Sheltering Arms will close its early education programs, displacing a staff largely comprised of women of color and hundreds of young children and their families. Other child-care providers may soon follow suit.

Nationwide, families left without care has become the new normal. Nearly 16,000 child care programs have permanently shuttered due to pandemic-induced financial devastation. More than 100,000 child care workers have fled the field for better-paying jobs in retail and other service industries. But like other New York City subsidized providers, Sheltering Arms’ troubles stem from a far more solvable issue: The city hasn’t been paying them on time. Delayed payments mean programs are struggling to pay staff and rent.

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“Centers are closing. Children are being displaced. Parents are being left stranded, and workers are being let go and unpaid,” Jahmila Edwards, of the union representing child care workers, said at an October City Hall rally. “In the middle of a national child care crisis, we simply cannot afford to let these places go out of business because of paperwork issues.”

The city says it has begun to streamline the process for invoicing and payments. “Essential work is underway to repair and stabilize the landscape of our early childhood education system, and we are tackling this work in partnership with our vast network of providers,” said Suzan Sumer, a spokesperson for the city’s education department. But it’s too late for the Sheltering Arms facilities.

“A Broken Market”

For more than 50 years, New York City has been home to the US’s largest — and one of its only — publicly funded child care systems for low-income families. Before the pandemic, its network of centers served more than 22,000 kids and provided a rare model for how to provide quality, affordable care that doesn’t exploit its workforce.

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In contracting directly with some centers, New York City is able to set consistent criteria, including requiring that programs use scientifically proven curricula and screen children for developmental delays. It also specifies worker wages and benefits. Many staff receive health care and pension plans — rarities in the notoriously undercompensated early childhood world.

Additionally, being publicly funded has made it easier for workers to unionize; a large portion of the city’s child-care teachers received substantive pay bumps due to a recent collective bargaining agreement. This adds up to wins for kids, families, teachers and child-care quality, according to Simon Black, a professor in the labor studies department of Brock University in Ontario, Canada.

“In many ways, they’re the gold standard of care in America,” he said. “When you have decent wages and decent working conditions, you’re more likely to have quality care,” he said.

“These programs level the playing field for thousands of families.”

Most families needing child care in the US must navigate a morass of market-based choices ranging from small daycares in providers’ apartments to large, for-profit enterprises. Tuition from parents rarely covers the true cost of child care. This leaves programs three main ways to keep tuition affordable: Pay caregivers less, cut quality, or do both. In 2021, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called child care in the US “a textbook example of a broken market.”

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Even the small portion of low-income families who receive subsidized care are at the mercy of this market. Most of these families get vouchers to purchase care or pay family and friends to look after their children. This means kids in subsidized care often wind up in child-care arrangements with little regulation and oversight.

Child-care programs receiving steady, direct funding may also have an easier time navigating difficult economic situations, like the one triggered by the pandemic, in which weeks of lost tuition harmed child-care programs nationwide.

“The more unpredictable your funding source, the less likely it is that you are able to weather these ups and downs,” said Rhonda Carloss-Smith, director of child care services at Brooklyn’s Child Development Support Corporation.

Funding child-care programs directly is common in other developed countries. But in the US, most reform efforts continue to invest in a market-based system, such as increasing the value attached to vouchers, said Elliot Haspel, an early-childhood education expert at the family policy group Capita.

The Origins of New York City’s Child Care Programs

It wasn’t always this way. Once, the entire country had public child care. New York City’s centers sprang from this moment.

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During World War II, states received federal money to open child-care centers, train teachers, and subsidize the cost of care for mothers taking on paid work help with the war effort. These wartime nurseries were popular, but when the war ended, the government closed the programs.

Though a legislative quirk, New York City never received federal funds for its wartime centers and activists successfully rallied to keep its nurseries open. As Black details in his 2020 book Social Reproduction and the City, these rescued nurseries — some, like Sheltering Arms’, which dated back to the New Deal — became the foundation for the city’s publicly funded child care system.

In the 1960s, as women flooded into the workforce and momentum for universal child care grew, staff at New York’s former wartime nurseries organized into the country’s first child-care union, ensuring that the city’s growth would not come at the cost of an exploited workforce.

While the US Congress hashed out what shape universal child care might take, New York City’s Republican Mayor John Lindsay began building it. New York City partnered with community daycares to expand the city’s network of publicly funded, unionized child care centers, sometimes building and leasing expansive new centers with rooftop play yards and sun-drenched classrooms. The programs quickly grew from about 120 in 1971 to more than 400 by 1974.

These programs had deep roots in city neighborhoods and looked different from community to community. Some were led by religious leaders, parents and organizers. The city ensured a baseline of quality by setting high standards and providing support.

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Though the centers primarily served poor neighborhoods, Lindsay and activists’ ultimate goal was to make quality, low-cost center-based care like the city’s subway system and public schools: a public good for all New Yorkers. That dream of universal child care died soon after President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have created a network of federally funded programs similar to New York’s with a sliding scale for parent payments.

When Nixon killed the bill, he condemned the idea of the government funding child care, equating it with communism and diminished parental authority. American families were left to figure out child care on their own.

As New York City entered a fiscal crisis and federal child care funding dried up, many of the city’s centers closed. The city pivoted away from directly funding child care programs for low-income families in favor of the cheaper route of giving parents vouchers to find their own solutions on the private market.

But activists have fought to hold onto the city’s remaining centers, preserving a public option for year-round child care with a largely unionized staff. “These programs level the playing field for thousands of families,” said Carloss-Smith at Brooklyn’s Child Development Support Corporation. She used to teach in a contracted center, and her mother helped unionize them.

Sheltering Arms Closes Its Doors

For Sheltering Arms, the recent payment troubles were, in some ways, just the final blow, said Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth McCarthy. The funding allotted the programs never fully covered the cost to run them, and Sheltering Arms raised money to cover the difference. When the city rolled out Pre-K for all, its child care programs began losing children and teachers to the highly publicized, better-paid universal programs. Then, in what McCarthy described as a “perfect storm” of chaos and transitions, the subsidized programs moved from the Administration of Children’s Services to the Department of Education, the pandemic hit, and a new mayoral administration entered the scene.

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The payment issues started in the last year but accrued quickly. By September’s end, the city owed early education sites, including universal pre-K programs, $464 million from the last school year, according to one audit. A survey of nearly 160 city-contracted child care programs found more than 40% had missed payroll or delayed vendor payments as a result of late payments.

At a City Council hearing in October, city officials acknowledged the payment crisis and blamed it on the system they’d inherited from the previous administration, calling it “burdensome” and “bureaucratic.” In the following weeks, the education department committed to streamlining the system and laid out a plan to expedite payments and clear $140 million in back pay.

But as Sheltering Arms prepares to shut shops after nearly 100 years of providing child care, other city providers and the families who depend on them remain on edge.

“If thousands of trains and buses went missing, y’all know government would do something,” said State Senator Jabari Brisport at the October rally. “The people need answers, and then they need their money.”

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Arkansas teacher's assistant pleads guilty to production of child pornography .
A former Arkansas teacher's assistant pleaded guilty in federal court to three counts of the production of child pornography. He will be sentenced at a later date. According to court records, the minimum sentence for his charges is 15 years and the maximum is 30 years with five years of supervision upon release, which will require him to register as a sex offender.

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