Child care is limited and expensive in Hampton Roads — and it’s not getting easier

(this article originally appeared in the Daily Press on March 29, 2023)

Fruits and vegetables, electricity, gasoline, milk, eggs — inflation has increased household costs, and it’s no different when it comes to child care. Wendy Chun-Hoon, director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, said in a news release that families are facing burdensome child care expenses all across the country. “The last few years have highlighted the tension parents experience when they need to go to work to provide for their families, but have difficulty doing so if they can’t access affordable child care,” Chun-Hoon said.

group playing with children small

A newly launched national database of child care prices shows that in areas where child care prices are high, mothers are less likely to be employed outside the home, even in places with higher wages, she said. “Reducing out-of-pocket child care expenses for families would support higher employment, particularly among women, lift more families out of poverty and reduce disparities in employment and early care and education,” Chun-Hoon said.

A look at the database shows that Hampton Roads is not immune to the issue at hand, which is the lack of an affordable and accessible child care infrastructure. All across the board ― infant, toddler, preschool and school-aged home-based and center-based — the cost of child care has risen in the past four years.

Overall, Hampton Roads has seen an estimated median annual child care cost increase of about 11.4% in 2022 since 2018, before the pandemic, according to data based on the Consumer Price Index. The region’s localities have seen a yearly cost increase for infant center-based care of about $1,000 to $1,300. Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth have seen the highest dollar increases for infant center-based care from $11,700 to $13,031, or $1,331 more per year.

And child care is still extremely difficult to get, especially in low-income neighborhoods, said Barbara Blake, chief administrative officer at Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy.

“Probably one of the continuing problems that you see — and this has just been around for decades and decades — is that child care for children under the age of 2 years old is extremely limited, and it’s extremely expensive,” she said. We need to really focus on the importance of child care to the community, Blake said.

She described the situation as a double whammy: the rising cost of care followed a record number of child care centers closing during the pandemic. “It makes choices very, very limited, and that has an impact on what’s available and what people pay,” Blake said.

With the increase of Virginia’s minimum wage on Jan. 1 to $12 an hour, Blake said now child care centers have to pay more in wages to stay competitive. The question is: What does one do when they have extremely young children and they can’t find child care? And if they do, Blake added, it’s expensive.

Finding solutions for workers

The United Campus Workers of Virginia, a union for workers in the state’s public higher education system, has been lobbying to provide free quality child care on campuses for workers.

Zarah Quinn, a doctorate student and campaign lead for Childcare for All at William & Mary, said child care in Virginia is a broken system. As a publicly funded institution, William & Mary is aptly positioned to offer free, high-quality child care to all of its students, staff, faculty and the community, she said.

“At the Williamsburg Campus Child Care, parents have to pay as much as $1,200 a month for child care, and waitlists can be up to two years,” Quinn said. The union’s Childcare for All Campaign, launched in September, also advocates for universal preschool as part of the public education system throughout Virginia.

“Currently, child care is a limited resource in the commonwealth,” said Katie Logan, co-chair of the union’s political coalition and policy committee. “It’s going to take a coalition of workers, child care providers, organizations and legislators committed to the same vision of making care a vital part of our public infrastructure to see change happen.”

Child care concerns are gaining the attention of state and federal lawmakers, the governor and other policymakers. This year, the General Assembly and the governor approved transforming the state’s school readiness committee to the Commission on Early Childhood Care and Education with the goal of expanding child care access throughout the state, examining funding for programs, strengthening the early childhood care workforce and monitoring costs.

A federal grant is helping Tidewater Community College provide child care for parents pursuing a degree. The TCC Child Care Access Means Parents in School Scholarship enables students with children and financial need to apply for reduced or no-cost child care. Scholarships were awarded for the spring semester and continue on a semester-by-semester basis. The program reduces financial barriers for parents attending in-person classes and completing internships or other requirements, said Jenefer Snyder, associate vice president of grants and sponsored programs.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, representing Virginia, secured $2.3 million for the construction, planning and design of a child development center at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth and $1.2 million for a facility at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.

Diane Umstead, Executive Director of Smart Beginnings Virginia Peninsula (n(not FirstSpark), said affordability and accessibility are the two main challenges affecting child care. “It costs about $10,000 a year to place a child in child care or early learning,” she said. “That is more than a quarter of most families’ income, especially if you’re low income.” On top of that, Umstead said 40% of child care sites were lost in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. Throughout the U.S., 80,000 child care workers were lost to other professions, Umstead said.

She said a lot of child care sites haven’t been able to ramp up again because of liability health regulations and group sizes. Families being unable to afford child care also contributes to centers’ inability to fill classrooms and expand. “It’s a huge crisis because there aren’t enough spaces to handle the number of children in need of care,” she said, adding there are only 69 seats for every 100 children in the region.

With that comes the larger economic impact because people can’t go to work if they don’t have safe, quality and affordable child care, she said. “We need multiple investments. It should not just be on the backs of parents,” she said. “Other countries are spending more on their young children because they see the value in the long run.”

– Sandra J. Pennecke 757-652-5836,