This is an op-ed written by Lea Webb, a Democratic candidate for New York State Senate District 53. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

In Albany, your State Senate and Assembly leaders have been negotiating with the Governor to pass a budget. News reports indicate that, finally, child care has made it to the top of the list! Working parents, childcare teachers, and businesses looking to fill their job openings should all applaud the news. I certainly do!

What’s on the table? The Assembly’s one-house bill includes $3 billion to support fees for lower-income parents and funds to pay higher wages to child care workers. The Senate’s proposal has more than $4 billion for child care, with the goal of providing “universal” access to child care. Governor Hochul’s budget already included increases over past child care allocations, so this long-neglected industry seems in a good position to survive the three-way negotiations to come.

Child care is an investment that more than pays for itself. It’s the backbone of a vibrant community and healthy workforce, essential for New York’s future. COVID-19 has heightened our awareness that childcare is a lynchpin in our economy – while pushing the childcare industry to the breaking point. We can’t fully recover without addressing the long-standing, structural challenges in the affordability and accessibility of childcare for families who need and want it. 

Before COVID, our communities in the Southern Tier and Central New York were “child care deserts,” defined as an area with three or more kids for every one licensed child care slot. Sadly, many providers didn’t make it these last two years, so the needs are even greater now. Many, many parents – especially women – have stayed out of the workforce because their arrangements for their kids were unstable or gone altogether because of COVID. The resulting labor shortage has severely hampered our recovery, impacting the production of goods and services, and likely adding inflationary pressures to the economy.

In their budget negotiations, I hope our state leaders will find the political will to:

  • expand child care subsidies for infants to school-age kids;
  • increase pay for child care workers, whose wages are often lower than those working in the fast food industry; 
  • fund a realistic reimbursement rate so providers can stay afloat and pay those living wages; 
  • provide universal pre-K, so all school districts can actually serve all the families who want pre-K; and
  • expand capital funding for new child care slots, to address the “child care deserts” we have across New York, including right here in Senate District 53. 

The evidence is everywhere, that we are all caught up in the unsustainable economics of this vital industry. A recent report, by Cornell University researchers working with Erie County officials, found that 75 percent of child care workers earn less than $15 per hour, the lowest living wage for a single adult in Western New York. The vast majority of child care workers are women, and especially women of color. Unless New York State steps up to correct these inequities, only the fully-subsidized and the very wealthy will be able to pay for care. 

But this isn’t just a problem for the child care workers, or the families, or the employers who can’t fill their job openings. It’s a problem for all of us. Fortunately, it’s a problem we know how to fix.