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Editor’s note: This is the first of three parts of the special report “Child care in Indiana: Starting Behind.” Look for subsequent parts of the report coming soon.

INDIANAPOLIS — Pushed out of California by high rent prices and job unavailability, Eva Bell moved to Indiana three years ago with her mom to start again in Bloomington.

But once in the Hoosier State, Bell encountered a new difficulty: securing and maintaining daily care for her youngest child, 5-year-old Willow.

“Child care was definitely easier in California than it is out here,” Bell said. “Here, I was able to secure two (part-time) jobs and rent was cheaper, but it was still a thing to navigate child care and safety nets. When I moved out here, I was making very, very little income.”

Bell’s difficulty demonstrates problems with Indiana’s child care system in the years before COVID-19, problems that only worsened during the pandemic. Several crises continue to plague the industry, including a worker shortage exacerbated by low pay and a shortage of child care centers.

Her first preschool option closed early in the pandemic, meaning Bell had to find another one within days in order to maintain her government child care benefits, known as the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).

In a state with a shortage of seats for children, Bell said she felt fortunate to find another care option for Willow.

“It was pretty stressful because I had to find a place quickly,” Bell said. “Thankfully, I was able to find her a place ... because with CCDF, it’s either use it or lose it.”

Across the country, tens of thousands of child care centers closed temporarily as millions of parents withdrew their children, directly or indirectly because of COVID-19. Some lost their jobs, reduced their work hours, transitioned to working from home or supervised children in virtual school. Thousands of child care centers have not reopened.

According to the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee, established by the General Assembly in 2013, less than 1% of child care facilities in Indiana closed because of COVID between March 23, 2020, and June 30, 2021. While just 43 closed expressly because of COVID, 777 others — representing 16% of the state’s child care centers — closed for reasons not specified in the committee’s report.

Child care facility owners faced tough decisions to make it through the pandemic.

At the Pixie Playhouse in Lebanon, co-owners and sisters Becky Albano-Miller and Ria Albano received two Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans worth a combined $90,000.

“Had we not had that, we would not be in business,” Albano-Miller said.

The Pixie Playhouse charges $160 per week per child, according to Albano-Miller. Enrollment is limited to children ages 2 to 6.

INCREASING COSTS

Before the pandemic, the average monthly costs of center-based child care in Indiana was $798. That increased by 17% to $934 during the COVID-19 shutdown.

For family or home-based child care, the average pre-pandemic cost in Indiana of $683 per month increased 71% during the COVID-19 shutdown to $1,167, according to a report from American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.

“When schools closed, we lost a lot of our enrollment — either parents were working from home or the teachers were,” Albano-Miller said. “Some (parents) still paid even though their children weren’t coming in.”

Indiana prioritized keeping facilities open to maintain child care spots for Hoosier children, according to Nicole Norvell, director of the Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning in Indiana (with the Family and Social Services Administration).

“I think this state did a nice job of not closing child care even in the heart of the pandemic when most of the states around us did,” Norvell said.

Federal funding flooded the state with millions of aid dollars, which it used to expand CCDF to higher-income families and offer “stabilizing” grants to child care facilities.

Federal lawmakers continue to hammer out details of a $1.85 trillion plan that could change the American child care industry by instituting universal preschool, increasing salaries for child care staff or permanently expanding the child tax credit.

Bill elements could include free child care for the most impoverished families and cap costs for other families at 7%, down from the current average of 13%.

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican representing the Fort Wayne area, maintains that the bill would hurt faith-based centers, which Indiana uses at a higher rate than other states, because of educational requirements for staff.

“The bill blocks the ability of many faith-based providers from participating in the child care system and will lead to many of their closures,” Banks said in a committee memo. “... The American people need us to be the vanguard against the Left’s radical plans.”

DEARTH OF FACILITIES

According to a study conducted by Early Learning Indiana, an estimated 478,754 children younger than 6 live in Indiana; 323,109 of them need child care. Just 117,000 children, or 36%, of children in need of care are enrolled in centers. Researchers did not determine how care is provided for the remaining 206,109 estimated children.

The Closing the Gap study aimed to identify Indiana’s capacity for providing child care options for Hoosier families, while also evaluating the quality, number of choices and affordability of options.

The analysis found that none of Indiana’s counties had adequate access to child care, just 14% of counties had moderate access and the remaining 86% of counties had inadequate access, giving Indiana an overall near-failing (by the study’s standards) score of 60.6. Below 60 would have earned an overall inadequate score.

Adding in complexities such as affordability and infant care, the study found that Indiana fell even further behind. Nearly one-third of care centers don’t offer infant care and just over a quarter offer non-traditional hours.

Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, started a longitudinal study following 250 southern Indiana families during their first couple of years with children shortly before the pandemic, enabling her team to analyze family child care choices during COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic, Calarco said, “Families have run up against substantial challenges, in terms of finding access to and maintaining access to affordable child care.

“I think certainly when we have child care deserts, families find ways of making do, but they’re not always ideal situations. It’s often a cobbled-together kind of system where families are trying to find care wherever they can and trying to do the best they can to afford that care.”

Families who can’t afford child care might end up relying on a family-and-friends system of care, or parents might alternate work shifts. Even if families can afford the cost of care, quality centers often have long waitlists or cover only a fraction of the hours needed.

Each state has its own child care system, but overall the United States lags behind other wealthy countries that offer universal child care, ranking 30th of 33 evaluated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

U.S. SPENDING LAGS

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth criticized the country’s child care benefits, many of which are administered through the tax code, a more complicated and less efficient way to deliver resources than cash benefits.

The center notes that not only did European child care options rank higher in quality, a government audit found that in the United States just 17% of children eligible for CCDF subsidies received them in 2011, the most recent year to be analyzed.

The United States spends about $500 per child per year on toddler care. Other wealthy countries contribute, on average, $14,000.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of child care, demonstrating how “integral” child care is to a functioning economy, according to Norvell, the director of Indiana’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning.

The unprecedented funding for child care gave Norvell’s department a chance to tackle core issues. But the funding would be squandered if the state spent it on a one-time teacher pay bonus, Norvell said.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t allow COVID to teach us some things,” she explained.

State regulations require one teacher to care for every four infants or one teacher for six toddlers. One teacher can manage a classroom of as many as 15 children age 6 and older.

But fewer children in the group means fewer parents splitting the cost of care. One caregiver of infants relies on four sets of parents to pay their salary, while a care provider for school-age children can rely on as many as 15 families.

“Infant care is very expensive, so that piece is something that I think collectively here in Indiana ... we continue to try to think about. How might we do a different model? Or what might that look like so that is more affordable?” Norvell said.

Families with infants also tend to be younger and earlier in their careers. With added expenses such as student loans, they often have the least financial resources.

Some facilities avoid the onerous cost of infant care by not enrolling them, limiting options for parents and pushing some (primarily mothers) to leave the workforce entirely. The poorest families often can’t afford child care at all, limiting their ability to seek better employment opportunities.

ONGOING STRUGGLE

Bell’s income level qualifies her for CCDF, the child care subsidy, which the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) manages. To qualify, a family must earn 127% or less of the federal poverty level.

FSSA reports that 127% of the federal poverty line is $1,844 gross monthly income for a family of two and $2,805 gross monthly income for a family of four.

Two years ago, Bell worked steady hours doing data entry for Hoosier Action, a community-based action group that advocates for progressive policies. Hours at her second job — at Target — changed more frequently.

“When Target’s hours fluctuated, that impacted my overall hours during my reporting period, and (FSSA) cut my child care down,” Bell said.

Every 53 weeks, FSSA checks to see whether families are working enough to retain CCDF. During Bell’s reporting period her hours at Target dipped. FSSA responded by cutting her benefits from five days of care each week to two days.

“It was really incredibly stressful. For a month, I had to work the night shift — taking my kids’ to my mom’s house, dropping them off when they got out of school … and then having to pick them up around midnight,” Bell said.

“It was incredibly disruptive to them, and it was a struggle for all of us. But that was the only way I was going to get my hours up to qualify for full-time child care.”

She regained the three other days of weekly child care coverage and now, two years later, works full time with Hoosier Action as a “moms organizer,” helping other mothers get involved. She pushes for more financial support for families, workers and child care facilities, arguing that subsidies — including CCDF — are far too easy to lose.

“To qualify for full-time CCDF, you have to be at a certain income threshold, which leaves a lot of families out,” Bell said. “Even before the pandemic, it has been unaffordable and also undervalued. The pandemic really showed us how much of a backbone these services are.”

The pandemic brought the single parent an unexpected financial boost when FSSA filed an emergency waiver permitting parents to access their CCDF benefits without a copay.

“With CCDF, a lot of families, including myself, have to pay co-pays, and I was paying something like $56 per week,” Bell said. “It was a lot for us — paying the bills, trying to keep the lights on and then paying that much for child care adds up.”

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