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NC ranks last in child care cost in new report, state struggles with funding

North Carolina ranks poorly in childcare costs and affordability

In a recent report published by WalletHub using 51 different indicators, North Carolina was ranked the 39th best state to raise a family.

When adjusting for median family income, North Carolina ranked last in terms of child care cost. The average annual cost of child care in North Carolina is $9,255 for an infant and $7,592 for a 4-year-old.

According to the NC Early Education Coalition, only 26.7 percent of families can afford care without exceeding the federal recommendation of spending no more than 10 percent of family income on child care.

Child care subsidies ensure children’s access to quality education and allow parents to work, benefitting businesses, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Child Development and Early Education said in an email.

“Strengthening the availability and accessibility of early care and learning across the state supports families, businesses and communities,” the department said in the email.

While child care subsidies exist, there are 30,000 children aged 5 and under on the waitlist. According to the NCEEC, low-income parents without access to assistance spend over one-third of their total yearly income on care.

Elaine Zukerman, the advocacy and communications director for the NCEEC, said parents can wait for up to two years on waitlists to get a spot.

The NCEEC classifies North Carolina as a "child care desert," with an average of over five families competing for every one available licensed child care slot statewide.

Families that rely on child care in order to work depend on these programs. Statewide, over two-thirds of children under six live in households where all parents work.

Licensed child care programs for infants and toddlers are currently only able to serve 18.7 percent of the infant-toddler population.

Zukerman said rural counties are especially impacted by this lack of child care, with some counties having no options available — especially for infants and toddlers.

Lack of compensation for teachers

The NCEEC found that low compensation for early education workers is the number one reason workers are leaving the early childhood field. Child care teachers earn $12 per hour on average, and one in five do not have health insurance.

Zukerman said young children’s development is reliant on stable relationships with their teachers. According to the NCEEC, low teacher compensation has resulted in fewer early educators entering the field, and one in three qualified teachers are reported to leave the field within the next three years.

Anna Mercer-McLean, the director of the Community School for People under Six, said child care teachers’ salaries should be competitive with those of public school teachers. She said teachers must be taken care of financially to provide high-quality care for children.

Zukerman said problems with child care cannot be resolved until the underlying issue of teacher compensation is addressed. To accomplish this, she said, funding is going to be necessary, and that there is a large enough surplus in the state budget to provide it.

“We can afford to do it,” Zukerman said. “We really can’t afford not to do it.”

Zukerman said women of color make up much of the child-care workforce, and the NCEEC is advocating for the extension of the Child Care Stabilization Grants through June 2025 to support care providers.

The grants, announced in 2021 by Gov. Roy Cooper, used American Rescue Plan funding to subsidize child care. Zukerman said this grant allowed providers to increase salaries for teachers in every program throughout the state.

Zukerman said the coalition is also advocating for the expansion of a program called Child Care WAGE$, which seeks to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers and stabilize the workforce in the field. The program supports educators who either have worked or are working toward a degree in early education by providing salary supplements.

Mercer-McLean said more continuity is needed in receiving funding, as payments often do not arrive on time. Funding, she said, is also necessary to account for the increase in cost of food following the pandemic and to maintain the enrollment of children.

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“We are here not because of the money, but in order to be here, we have to have funding to be able to support what we do,” Mercer-McLean said.

Zukerman said that child care impacts everybody, whether they know it or not. Child care, according to Zukerman, is needed by workers in all industries, and creates a foundation for supporting the next generation of North Carolinians.


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