North Carolinians agree: we’re facing a child care crisis

If there's an issue we agree on, it's child care

By: Erica Palmer Smith | July 2023

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In June, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 2023 KIDS COUNT® Data Book. It’s an annual 50-state report and its latest release shows that North Carolina has work to do.

According to the Data Book, in 2021, 18 percent of North Carolina’s children lived in poverty, 28 percent lived in families where no parent had a full-time job, 68 percent of fourth graders were not proficient in reading, 75 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in math, and the majority of 3- and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in any early childhood education programming.

All of that is concerning to us at NC Child. But the issue that stood out the most, as an outlier in North Carolina, was the child care crisis.

The average cost in North Carolina for center-based child care was $9,916. That’s 25 percent higher than the national average of $7,501. That’s why, in North Carolina, it’s getting to be more expensive to send a kid to child care than it is to send them to college.

While cost is an issue, there’s also the issue of quality. Despite the cost of child care, it’s difficult for providers to recruit and retain high-quality child care workers because the pay is so low. In fact, child care workers in the United States are paid less than 98 percent of other professions.

According to the Data Book, the median national salary for a child care worker in 2021 was $27,490. That’s $13.22 an hour. In North Carolina, the median was even worse, at just $12.87 an hour. For comparison, the median wage of someone working in retail was $14.03.

These statistics confirm what we already know: high quality, affordable child care is hard to come by. According to the Data Book, 16 percent of children in North Carolina lived in families where someone had to quit, change jobs, or turn down employment because of child care issues. That’s worse than the national average of 12.6 percent.

Most importantly, this issue affects our kids. We say we want the best for them, but shouldn’t that include child care? The good news is that we agree the answer is yes.

According to recent polling by the NC Chamber Foundation, 77 percent of North Carolina voters believe that access to child care is a serious problem, 86 percent say that improving the quality and making it more affordable is a good investment of taxpayers’ money, and 87 percent say that acting on child care should be an important priority for North Carolina this year.

That’s as close to a consensus in North Carolina as there gets.

That’s a reason to feel hopeful.

There are no easy answers. But we know what works: increasing investments to essential programs like child care subsidy, NC Pre-K, and Smart Start while also investing in the early education workforce. This year, we’ve seen some progress on those issues.

NC Child commends the General Assembly for raising the child care subsidy rates in North Carolina to the 2021 market rates, the most recent available. We’re also encouraged by the ongoing investment in Smart Start and the commitment to pursuing creative child care solutions such as the Tri-Share model.

North Carolina has the opportunity to build on that momentum by investing further in retaining high-quality teachers by extending proven salary supplement programs, creating a salary scale that achieves pay parity with K-12 teachers, and providing early educators with subsidized child care for their own children.

Early educators are “the workforce behind our workforce” and without high-quality teachers, programs will struggle to serve working families in communities across North Carolina. Without additional funding to support teacher pay and benefits, programs may be forced to close or increase parent fees – further decreasing the supply of child care and creating negative consequences for kids and families.

But with the right investments, we can ensure that children are learning at a young age and that parents can work to support their families. We can all agree, this access is critical, for the workforce of today and the workforce of tomorrow, and for the future our children will inherit.

Erica Palmer Smith is the Executive Director of NC Child, the voice of North Carolina’s children and a state partner for the KIDS COUNT® Data Book.