RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – State Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) started as a kindergarten teacher before rising through education and then deciding to use her educational experience to help in government service.

So it was from that perspective that on Thursday she and three colleagues announced a series of bills being filed in the General Assembly to address a severe shortage of available child care that they say is negatively affecting both families and businesses across North Carolina – and threatens to get worse very soon.

State Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) leads an announcement Thursday about bipartisan bills to address child care needs. (WNCN)

These bills, five each filed in both the House and the Senate by their bipartisan bicameral Joint Legislative Early Childhood Caucus, of which Clemmons and the others are cochairs, are positioned, these sponsors say, to address both the immediate problem of vanishing federal subsidies and the long-term problem of childhood development and the need for workforce development across the state.

“When I started out as a kindergarten teacher,” Clemmons said during a press conference Thursday, “I quickly learned that the most important time for children is before they come to kindergarten. … Their brains grow 85% by age 3.”

But that’s hardly where this issue ends. State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett), Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake), Rep. David Willis (R-Union) and Clemmons each spoke enthusiastically about why lawmakers need to wade into a problem that has a national economic toll that has risen from an estimated $57 billion in 2018 to $122 billion in 2022.

The problem, as explained by those most affected, is multifaceted:

State Rep. Ashton Clemmons (CLEMMONSFORNC.ORG)
  • Parents have much difficulty in finding child care, a problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when it’s estimated that 16,000 child-care centers in the state closed their doors.
  • Those that remained open have found it difficult to hire and retain teachers capable of addressing the needs of young children, particularly infants.
  • Federal subsidies that emerged during the pandemic to pay teachers more and keep centers open are expiring, and the bills filed seek to provide the $300 million gap that will emerge in December, sponsors said.
  • Unemployment in the state is historically low, and jobs are available across many spectrums, including about 1 in 5 jobs open in state government. Some 400,000 people in North Carolina have said child care issues have forced them to miss work.
  • There’s also a need to provide assistance for women about to become mothers, mothers of newborns and for their infants to a level that improves both the mortality and morbidity rates.

The primary effect

Daphne Alsiyao is a mother of three, including an 8-month-old, who recently moved from Rockingham County to Forsyth County, where she has found it impossible to find child care, especially for her two youngest.

“There’s a severe child care shortage, especially dire for infants,” Alsiyao said. “I’ve lost count of how many waitlists I’m on. Some have called to say their waitlists are full.”

She said she tried all the assistance programs, and there is no availability because they can’t hire enough staff. She said her husband is a deputy sheriff in Guilford County, and she’s fortunate that her job with the North Carolina Partnership for Children allows her to work remotely. Still, that emphasizes another issue.

“Caring for a toddler and infant while working remotely isn’t ideal,” she said. “I have to tap into my PTO [paid time off].”

She said in her job she has talked to parents with the same problem. “There are moms are out of the workforce and into poverty because they can’t find child care,” she said. “It’s not affordable or accessible. We had an infant child care desert before the pandemic. COVID has worsened that crisis.”

Oh, the cost: Data from ChildCare Aware show that in 2021, the average national price of child care was around $10,600 each year. The Hill reported. That number only has risen since and easily can overtake the earning power of many two-wage-earner families in a state where the median household income is about $60,500.

Alsiyao’s description led to the other two key issues that lawmakers say they want to address: The difficulties facing both providers and employers.

The second effect

Michelle Miller-Cox, executive director of First Presbyterian Church Day School in Durham, said there is an extreme shortage of the people she called “brain builders” for the many ways they help a child learn to live and to grow.

“It was already broken before the pandemic struck, now it is on the verge of crumbling,” Miller-Cox said of child care availability. “Childhood stabilization grants have helped. … But the funding is about to run out.

“Our state and our country have failed to deal with this. Our brain builders are off to work at Costco for $18 an hour with less responsibility.”

Said Clemmons: “Supporting early childhood development helps the economy of today by helping families remain in the workforce, and it helps businesses of the future by building a workforce.”

Debra Derr of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce said the business community “is aligned on this issue. … Employers identify child care as a critical factor. Without child care, parents can’t go to work or are overworked at home.”

She said leaders need to “reimagine this critical infrastructure. … The business community is engaged as we work together to find a North Carolina solution to investing in our state’s future.”

Helping mothers

Burgin described how the base of this issue actually begins before birth.

“We have 116,000 children born each year [in the state],” he said. “About 52% are born under Medicaid. … We need to get them off Medicaid,” Burgin said, noting that the infant mortality in the Black community is 2.7 times higher than in the white or Hispanic communities.

He said “child care begins at conception,” and he wants the state to provide “doulas” – birth coaches, essentially – “to get moms and new babies off to a great start. … To provide someone to walk through that journey with them.”

The five bills

State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) (NCGA)
State Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Union) (NCGA)
State Rep. David Willis (R-Hartnett) (NCGA)

The House versions of the bills that will have companions in the Senate are about each of those issues. One of them includes a 3-county pilot program – the NC DHSS would help choose the counties, Clemmons said – to address ground-floor needs in the state’s smaller and poorer counties. The bills:

All four sponsors said they have the full support of leadership in the Senate and the House. They said they expect some of these bills to be folded into the state budget, because they include immediate dollars. Others have much to be worked out.

“The federal government has propped up child care over the last two years,” Willis said. “We have a cliff coming up. We can’t allow federal support programs to go away without the state providing for child care.

“How do we continue to pay for child care as a whole? How do we provide a subsidy that is meaningful – not just in Wake or Meck [Mecklenburg] or Guilford counties but in poor counties like Yadkin and Anson? … We have to find a balance that allows us to prop those businesses up.

“There are a lot of other bills that we considered, but these five bills are the most important.”