Fresh Food, Dance Class, and Nap Mats: What's Lost Without Federal Money...


Fresh Food, Dance Class, and Nap Mats: What's Lost Without Federal Money for Child Care

By Rebecca Gale     Apr 8, 2024

Fresh Food, Dance Class, and Nap Mats: What's Lost Without Federal Money for Child Care

It’s 5 a.m. and Tiffany Gale is up, as she is every morning, and the first thing she does is check to see if any of her child care staff have called out sick.

“They each have kids of their own, and someone is always sick,” she explains.

If indeed someone is out, Gale will be the one to step in and take over that classroom at the child care center she owns and runs. Until recently, she’d had enough money to hire a floating staff person to fill in the gaps or offer extra support, thanks to federal funds for child care providers under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Across the country, ARPA stabilization dollars went to more than 220,000 child care programs, affecting 9.6 million children, with many child care providers claiming such funds kept their doors open at a time when financially they could not break even.

But the funds ran out in September 2023. Since then, Gale — and thousands more child care providers just like her — have had to change the way they operate.

The historic investment the ARPA funds provided revealed just how much child care could improve in this country with sustained federal support. Now policymakers will have to decide whether to make that vision a long-lasting reality — or accept the old status quo.

Tiffany Gale and children at her child care center. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Gale.

Gale (no relation to the author) has known she wanted to work with young kids ever since she can remember.

“I grew up going through many adverse childhood experiences, and I always had teachers who made a positive impact on my life, and wanted the same,” she says.

In August 2019, she opened Miss Tiffany’s Early Childhood Education House, a child care center run in her home in Weirton, West Virginia. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early the following year, Gale stayed open by accepting children whose parents were considered “essential workers”: teachers, nurses, mill workers. She got up early and stayed open late to accommodate people who worked 12-hour shifts and needed to drop kids off as early as 5 a.m.

By serving these families, Gale got access to federal child care subsidies. Child care, Gale explains, was essential to allowing these workers to do their jobs, and during the emergency phase of the pandemic, the federal government seemed to agree, sending between $30 and $34 per day per child of each essential worker directly to the providers who cared for them. Leaders in Washington routed additional money through state agencies to child care centers like Miss Tiffany’s, too, which meant that these small businesses accustomed to slim margins finally had some financial breathing room.

Before the pandemic, many child care centers were already in precarious positions because of the low staff-to-child ratios legally required to run them and because so few providers and families received federal and state support. The health crisis pushed many centers over the edge, and they closed. But for the ones that could stay open and take advantage of federal investment, there was an opportunity to make substantial improvements, which Gale recognized. She immediately set to work to improve the overall child care experience at her center.

Renovations, Meals and Activities

Before the pandemic, Gale had a waitlist “a mile long” for families who wanted a spot. More than 40 percent of children in West Virginia under age 6 who need child care can’t access it, she explains, pointing to data from Child Care Aware and TEAM for West Virginia Children. But she was constrained by the limited space in her home and couldn’t accommodate any additional kids.

Then Gale received money through the ARPA stabilization grants that she could use to expand. She put a down payment on a commercial space in downtown Weirton, and then began the necessary renovations to open a second location, which she named Miss Tiffany’s School for Young Children. She oversaw the renovation herself, which was primarily carried out by her husband and father-in-law, working on weekends and evenings.

“Everyone spent all of our ‘free time’ renovating the space,” she says.

There was enough space — three units and one house — for four classrooms, and as soon as renovation was completed on the first room, she enrolled 12 more kids. But then the permitting and construction process grew complicated. Gale discovered she would have to move two HVAC systems, which could cost $12,000 apiece. The timeline for renovation grew longer.

“The plan was to have all four [rooms] opened by the time funding ran out, but I only have one open right now,” she says.

Without the extension of the ARPA funds, she faces having to sell the unfinished units.

“It's a shame, because there is such a demand for child care,” Gale says.

In Weirton, Form Energy is building a high-volume battery manufacturing facility at the site of the former Weirton Steel plant. The job fairs are already at capacity — the company has an attractive offer of benefits, a 401(k), and paid time off — and expects more than 750 new jobs to come to the area, including in manufacturing, operations, human resources and administrative roles.

“But we don’t have the child care infrastructure to support this,” Gale says. “If I have to sell the other two units, that’s going in the opposite direction of where we need to be.”

Each day, Miss Tiffany’s offers two meals and two snacks for each child. It’s food Gale shops for and her staff prepares on site. Her child care facilities qualify for meal subsidies through the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is administered by the West Virginia Department of Education. Because of the high poverty levels in the area, all children receive a subsidy for their meals: $1.65 for breakfast, $3.12 for lunch, and 93 cents for a snack.

Extra pandemic funding meant Gale could serve fresh foods, including fruit, vegetables and meat. Breakfasts started to include sliced peaches, apples, tomatoes and scrambled eggs. Lunches included chicken stir fry, chicken enchiladas, roast beef, or broccoli quiche, among other options. For an afternoon snack, children had sliced apples with peanut butter.

But when that money dried up, Gale switched back to the more affordable food options for children that still fall well within the state nutrition guidelines: peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs, mac and cheese, and breakfast cereal. Instead of fresh versions, teachers now serve canned beans, meats, fruits and vegetables. Snacks are graham or saltine crackers instead of apples.

Gale laments the switch away from fresh food, and knows that her kids do too. But the cost of groceries continues to rise, along with the price of nearly everything else, and Gale is certain she can’t raise her rates higher than her families can afford to cover better food for the kids.

“Quality food access supports a child’s brain growth and development during one of the most critical points in their life,” Gale says.

ARPA funds allowed Gale to try new teaching activities. She used grant money to purchase raised garden beds and sunflower kits so that her kids could take on gardening projects. She purchased notebooks for the kids so they could document the growth of the sunflowers, soil, seeds and water.

Gale and children working at a raised garden bed. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Gale.

She also received a Regional Outdoor Play Improvement grant through the West Virginia Early Childhood Training Connections and Resources program, which she used to purchase additional jungle-gym climbers for the children to improve their gross motor skills. She also purchased sensory tables, which can be filled with items like beans or sand for kids to play in.

The ARPA funds allowed her to bring in outside teachers to lead dance and music classes, and to teach social-emotional learning lessons, but those programs stopped when the funding was cut off.

“No more outside experts, unless they can do it for free,” Gale says.

Instead of new notebooks and arts and crafts supplies, Gale now offers the kids more worksheets and crayons. “It’s stripping children of learning in a meaningful way,” she says.

Naptime also changed. With the new downtown location, Gale had sufficient funds to purchase cots for each kid with sheets, blankets and pillows, instead of the vinyl Heavy-Duty KinderMats she uses at her home location. Those mats had previously been the best option she could afford that complied with state regulations. They have since worn down, and rips are visible. “We are duct taping them to keep them around as long as possible,” Gale says.

At the home location of her center, it’s still up to families to bring in bedding for each kid, but not all of them can. “We see a lot of kids who are sleeping on a bare mat,” Gale says.

Revenue and Subsidies

Gale’s primary source of revenue is what she collects from the families who use her center, with some additional funding from the state for families who qualify for a subsidy. She has 12 kids at each location, between the ages of 6 weeks and 12 years, though she estimates that most kids are between the ages of 2 and 5 years old. She charges $45 per day or $165 per week, and though demand for spots remains high, Gale feels the need to cap her rates.

“Parents can’t afford to pay any more,” she says. “I have to keep my rates at a certain level or I am not going to be able to keep my doors open.”

Gale estimates that 50 to 75 percent of children who are in her care on a regular basis receive a state subsidy. The process of collecting reimbursement is complicated and cumbersome: Families are required to sign in and out with a black pen (blue pen doesn’t count, she explains, adding, “I don’t know why.”). Hard copies of the papers must be mailed to a central office in Charleston, West Virginia. But with so many parents signing kids in and out each day, there are inevitable errors and snags in the process, and the papers will be sent back (again by regular mail, not electronically) for corrections before Gale can receive payment.

One of the major shifts under ARPA — and one that child care advocates have long called for — was a change in the way providers are reimbursed for children who receive state subsidies for child care. Previously, providers like Gale were given a subsidy reimbursement based on child’s attendance — if a child was out sick or opted to spend the day with a grandparent instead of coming to child care, Gale wouldn’t receive payment — or she’d receive a partial day rate if the child left early. Her child care facility is considered Tier II on the quality rating, just below the Tier III level that requires national accreditation, so she is reimbursed $34 a day for an infant, $33 per day for a toddler, and $30 a day for children over 3 years old (25 to 30 percent below market rate). Though in every instance, Gale was still required to have staff on hand for the children who were enrolled, and she had to cap her waitlist based on those enrollment numbers.

“Kids get sick all the time,” Gale says. “If we are forced to reserve that space, then we should get paid for that day.” This is one of the ways that early childhood education is penalized compared to K-12 education, which receives broad federal and state support, she explains. “If a child in K-12 is out one day, the teacher doesn't get paid less. For some reason we don’t see child care as education,” Gale says.

With the ARPA funds, instead of relying on attendance, Gale and other child care providers received reimbursement from the state for any child enrolled in their program, regardless of any days they missed. This allowed for a more consistent revenue stream and to more effectively plan staff schedules.

This change in subsidy reimbursement policy was made permanent in several states, including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and Montana. West Virginia is also continuing to pay providers based on enrollment rather than attendance, and though this policy has been extended several times, it has not yet been made permanent through legislation.

In addition to the more comprehensive reimbursement plan, the state raised the income eligibility limit (to families making 85 percent of state median income) so that more families would qualify for child care subsidies. But with the end of the ARPA funding, families who had received funds for child care also lost their spots.

Rick Poling is a 59-year-old metal worker in Weirton, with custody of two of his grandchildren, Leona and Tyler, ages 5 and 6. They had relied on Miss Tiffany’s for child care during the pandemic when Poling was working. Since he was considered an essential worker, the state used ARPA funding to provide him with free child care, regardless of income eligibility. Poling was among those who worked 12-hour shifts and appreciated that Gale kept her center open early and late for him.

“The kids loved going there,” he says. “Miss Tiffany was really great with them.”

Poling’s case of raising grandchildren is not unusual in this country. More than 2.5 million kids in the U.S. are being raised by a relative who is not a parent — approximately 3 percent of all kids — and the prevalence of opioids makes the caregiving arrangement more likely for children in West Virginia, which has one of the highest rates of kinship care.

But the child care subsidies for essential workers ended in October 2022. Poling received a letter from West Virginia’s family services agency explaining that his child care benefit would be cut off. Poling had also switched jobs, and at his new income level, he no longer qualified for any additional state subsidy. Paying $300 per week for child care for his two grandchildren at Miss Tiffany’s was too much for him.

“They liked being at Miss Tiffany’s with the other kids,” Poling says. “But it’s not something I can afford right now.”

Poling’s new job is just across the state border in Ohio. He works with titanium metal (“You see any airplane in the sky, and we’re the place that put the metal on there,” he says). His shift schedules change by week, and can be either 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., or 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Such hours that accompany shift work are unpredictable and complicated for securing child care arrangements, even with a provider like Gale who had been willing to extend hours and open early to accommodate.

But without the child care option at Miss Tiffany’s, Poling relies on a friend, a retired teacher, and his girlfriend to help with the kids. For his overnight shift, he drops the grandkids off at the friend’s house, who he pays $250 “every few weeks” for helping him out. Tyler is now in a pre-K program that ends at 1 p.m. and Leona is in kindergarten until 3 p.m. “It's much easier for them now that they’re in school,” Poling says. But this patchwork arrangement comes with its own challenges, and requires mental energy to manage all of it.

Child Care Staff

Years of low wages and no benefits for child care workers has created a drastic staffing shortage in the industry, one that Gale, too, has felt with her team. But the influx of ARPA funds allowed providers like Gale to provide bonuses for staff, which were preferential to raises since the future funding was uncertain. This also helped Gale to pay for a floating staff member, without whom Gale has to step in, bringing paperwork into the classroom to try and finish while the kids are playing or taking a rest. On some short-staffed days, Gale doesn't get home until 10 p.m. after starting at 5 a.m.

In exchange for these round-the-clock hours, Gale estimates her take-home pay is $40,000 per year. That’s better than the average child care worker in the state, who makes $10.66 an hour — but the precarity of the business arrangement means that she is constantly concerned about money. And it’s less than the median household income in West Virginia: about $55,000.

Low wages lead to other problems for her staff, like securing access to reliable transportation. Gale says many of her employees cannot afford a car. “Or if they can, it's an extremely unreliable car,” she says, which she nicknamed “a beater car.” She has one or two staff members without access to any car, so they find ways to get rides from friends and relatives. Public transit options in Weirton are extremely limited.

Many of her staff are already working 9- to12-hour shifts per day, and being short-staffed means that Gale offers overtime when someone calls out sick. But even with time-and-a-half overtime pay, it’s just $15 an hour. “It’s still not a ton of money,” she says.

One of Gale’s own staff made so little money that she also qualified for child care subsidies. This worker recently had to leave her job to care for a new baby with complications, which meant she no longer qualified for a subsidy for her elder child. West Virginia’s state legislature has another bill pending, House Bill 4002, which would provide child care assistance to child care staff regardless of their income. This could also have the effect of providing some relief to child care providers who give the staff steep discounts for their own children; instead of Gale’s business taking the financial hit, the state would cover the cost of her own staff’s child care, enabling her staff to come to work.

What Comes Next

ARPA funds brought about historic investment in child care. A number of states have seen the changes ARPA made possible as a positive shift that should be continued, and their governments have poured in historic investment to build better child care infrastructure. But, as experts have advocated, a state-by-state solution isn’t enough for a national child care crisis. Particularly for states like West Virginia, a state with one of the highest poverty ratings and lowest economic opportunity rating.

Manufacturers in West Virginia have expressed concerns that the lack of child care hurts the state’s competitive edge, contributing to its low ranking in child well-being. Gale’s own example of Form Energy coming to town speaks directly to this crisis: Good jobs are arriving in the region, and yet there still aren’t enough child care spots for the families who need them.

Gale has now become a vocal supporter for passing the child care legislation in her state and speaking out on how more investment is needed for child care. The ARPA funds shifted Gale’s mindset about what’s possible, and how and why she believes the government should play a role in child care — as it does in nearly every other industrialized country.

“I dumped every last penny I had into my business before COVID hit,” she says. “I did a Google search about who makes decisions in West Virginia, and started reaching out to the state legislators and bringing [other child care providers] together.”

Gale and other child care advocates at the West Virginia State Capitol. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Gale.

She began volunteering with the West Virginia Association for Young Children and later joined the board as secretary, going to Charleston and advocating for more child care funding. Her advocacy has started to take on a larger role in her life: She recently accepted a position as the executive director for the West Virginia Women’s Alliance.

With these new responsibilities, Gale will retain ownership of her two child care centers but not manage the day-to-day work.

“I have to be prepared for the next funding cliff,” she explains. “In case we have to close our doors.”

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