Report: Boston's child care capacity remains below pre-pandemic levels
While the height of the COVID-19 pandemic might be a few years behind us, Massachusetts' child care industry is still struggling to recover.
According to a new report out Wednesday, much of the industry's struggles can be linked to a lingering early educator shortage. Statewide, there were 5,000 fewer early-childhood educators in 2021 than in 2019. And as of spring 2022, 35% of center-based child care programs reported being unable to operate at full capacity.
The city of Boston alone lost about 120 licensed early education providers since 2019. Three-quarters of these providers were family-based centers, where people provide care for a small number of children in their homes.
"The loss of family child care programs is particularly concerning from an equity perspective," said the report from The Boston Opportunity Agenda — a public-private partnership. The report was co-sponsored by the Boston's Office of Early Childhood and multiple philanthropies. Authors highlighted that family-based care is often relied upon by low-income families, parents with non-traditional work hours and families of color.
Parents with children under age two are having the hardest time finding an available seat at a licensed child care center. Only 21% of the city's child care slots were available to kids under two.
"A bright spot is that [Boston's] universal pre-kindergarten program is really helping to lead the way in the expansion of early education and care and raising the quality," said Elizabeth Walczak, interim executive director of the Boston Opportunity Agenda.
However, those seats are only for kids ages 3 and up.
The number of open child care seat for kids under two is low. Availability also varies by neighborhood: Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale and East Boston had lower capacity for young kids than the citywide average.
The report also highlighted the increased costs of child care. Between 2018 and 2021, the average tuition for infant care in Boston increased by about $1,300 to $21,269. The tuition hike for toddler care was even steeper, increasing by about $5,600 to reach $19,402 in the same time period.
"Infant care in Massachusetts costs nearly 67 percent more than in-state college tuition and 31 percent more than average rent," the report states. "Even if all Boston families could find formal early education and care near their homes, clearly many of them would not be able to afford it."
The report offers several policy recommendations, many of which rely on increased state funding. The authors advocate continuing the state's Commonwealth Cares for Children, or C3, grants. That money was originally intended to be emergency funding to help providers weather the financial insecurity of the pandemic, but the funding stream has since been extended to cover this year and potentially next year as well.
More than 98% of child care providers in Boston have received money through this program.
The report also recommends the state increase the reimbursement rate for child care subsidies to reflect the current cost of care.
Additional recommendations include continued city investment in training new early childhood educators and formulation of a city-wide definition of "high quality child care."
Members of Boston Opportunity Agenda add that while the city's child care industry still faces significant issues, they're encouraged by all of the political energy around expanding access.
"There is this widespread recognition of how essential child care is for families and the economy here," said Walczak. "The pandemic really shined a light on something that was already a challenge."