Feb 11, 2021

Advocates set an ambitious goal for child care access. Will Vermont find the money?

Capitalizing on the spotlight the pandemic has put on the role child care plays in the economy, advocates this legislative session have set their most ambitious target yet — and nearly 100 lawmakers are on board.

But can they pull it off?

“It’s no longer ‘if.’ It’s when and how,” Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, said at a press conference in late January. “Let’s set a goal for the state that no family — no family — pay more than 10% of their gross household income on child care.” The event’s speakers included Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and other top lawmakers and business leaders.

The Legislature is now considering H.171, which would turn this goal into law — and require Vermont to achieve it by 2025. The legislation has tri-partisan support, and nearly two-thirds of House lawmakers are already cosponsoring it. Left unsaid, however, is how much the bill would cost — and who would pay for it.

In the short term, the legislation makes incremental changes in the state’s child care subsidy program for low-income Vermonters. But to achieve its topline target, it assigns the state’s treasurer, auditor, Joint Fiscal Office and commissioners of finance and of taxes to cost out the plan and identify a long-term funding source. A report would be due back to lawmakers by next January.

The economics of child care are broken in two ways, advocates say. Families regularly report paying too much — often more per month than their mortgage — while early childhood educators barely make ends meet. The median hourly wage for a child-care worker in Vermont was $13.72 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And workers often don’t get even the most basic job benefits.

“It’s astonishing how many early childhood educators who have been working on the frontlines of the pandemic, almost a third of them … don’t have access to health insurance benefits,” Sarah Kenney, policy director for Let’s Grow Kids, told the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

Notably, H.171 would not just hike subsidies to substantially lower the cost to families. It would also require providers to pay their employees wages “commensurate with peers in other fields,” which could put salaries for child care workers on par with public school teachers.

In testimony to the committee, Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, took pains to emphasize that the administration supported the “broad concept” of the bill. And, indeed, Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget for next year includes a $5.5 million increase in the subsidy program to support moderately expanded eligibility.

But Brown expressed concerns that, by setting such big-picture policy goals before determining their cost, lawmakers were putting the cart before the horse.

“I don’t want to be the skunk at the garden party here,” Brown said. But based on a “high level” look at the bill, he said, administration officials believed the eventual cost could be in the ballpark of $300 million to $500 million a year.

Advocates freely acknowledge that the cost, whatever it is, will dwarf the less than $60 million a year the state now spends on child care subsidies. (Much of this money is federal.) But they say the bill balances the urgency of the problem with a timeline the Legislature can work with, particularly as it tackles the pandemic.

And with Democrats now in power in Washington — and momentum for better child care options building across the aisle — they say there is renewed hope Congress could eventually inject more money into the sector.

“That’s exactly what the bill proposes to do — is put those into place. Figure out all those details, figure out the cost estimates and put some pieces in motion now that we already know are needed,” Kenney said.

In the meantime, support is growing in the business community for more aggressive action on child care. On Thursday, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility announced they were backing Let’s Grow Kids’ plan.

“High-quality, affordable child care is essential to Vermont’s families and businesses; never has this been more apparent than during the pandemic,” Beth Rusnock, a VBSR board member and head of Community Relations at National Life Group, said in a statement.

The Human Services Committee expects to take the first pass at the bill. Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, the committee’s chair and one of H.171’s sponsors, called the legislation an admittedly “big lift.”

“This is huge,” she said. “And the question is: Everyone agrees with the goal — how do we get there?”

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org. 

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