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Startup Costs

Parents and educators alike struggle to navigate New Haven’s patchwork of early childhood care.

Throughout her decades-long career, Georgia Goldburn vowed never to close the doors of her childhood development center. Goldburn, Executive Director of Hope for New Haven and a child care industry veteran, was determined to run her programming—despite tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, high staff turnover, and overall financial instability. After navigating the risks of operating through COVID-19, Goldburn reviewed her business’s 2022 finances. She realized the sum she could afford to pay her teachers was less than the amount they would receive from unemployment benefits.

Goldburn’s motivations to operate exceed a financial bottom line. They have to. Goldburn has committed herself to providing early childhood education to Black and brown communities. She has observed firsthand how a lack of targeted childhood support services, insufficient teacher compensation, and inaccessibility of high-quality educational programs influences outcomes in the community she calls home.

Goldburn’s program Hope for New Haven centers under-resourced communities of color. Her mission is to consolidate educational resources for minority groups emerging from her community. 

“What we want is for people of color to still have those connections without having to leave a community to achieve economic success,” Goldburn told me. She emphasized that it is not enough to haplessly invest money into underserved populations without being conscious about keeping those groups connected.

“You have to be intentional in how you bring money into child care,” she said. 

The system of reallocation is not always an equitable one. According to Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman, Coalition Director of Child Care for Connecticut’s Future, the state’s solution for early education is a general stabilization fund for licensed child care programs, leaving everyone haggling. Subsequently, the investment can bypass communities most in need and manifest in short-sighted solutions, such as inserting children into affluent neighborhoods rather than fortifying their local resources. 

Before 2021, universal early child care in Connecticut was unheard of until the formation of Child Care for Connecticut’s Future, a coalition with campaign goals of securing fair compensation for educators and more affordable child care for all.

Providers, who range from close relatives taking care of children to those working at childcare centers like Goldburn, understand that when they show up to their jobs, parents can show up for theirs. The effect bolsters the economy and the broader state community. As Executive Director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, Dr. Walter Gilliam quips: “Child care is like the road…if it doesn’t work, you can’t get to work.”

But nationwide, legislators and policymakers do not treat early childhood care as a fully subsidized public good. Unlike kindergarten through high school, early childhood education does not fall under the funding and discretion of a standardized public school system. The closest thing Connecticut has to a universal early child care system is its twenty-two Head Start programs, state-subsidized school readiness preschool programs that serve more than 5,539 children and families. But these programs often contain waitlists of over a hundred families and struggle to employ qualified teachers. The local government’s other stopgap—a program called “Care 4 Kids” that subsidizes the cost of child care from a wide range of providers—can prove inadequate or simply too obscure. Parents and educators alike are thus primarily left to navigate a complicated patchwork of funding, care options, and availability alone—with plenty of barriers to access. 

Georgia Goldburn in the playground of Hope for New Haven.

The Cost of Care 

Every dollar spent on child care, Gilliam noted, yields $7.30 in “society savings.” These savings represent the money gained back when a child has a safe educational environment, the chance to secure their degree and employment, and ultimately the tools to become a productive citizen. According to the Early Childhood Alliance, the first one thousand days of life is the most significant time for secure attachment and brain development. Goldburn noted that 80 to 90 percent of a child’s brain has already developed by the time they are 4 and 5 years old. For this reason, early childhood educators are pivotal in nurturing those basic, life-altering skills that are underestimated yet critical.

Despite the need for these crucial skills, policymakers and lobbyists alike often neglect to fund early childhood education. This is perplexing because, as Gilliam notes: “Anytime something is considered an infrastructure and essential to life and the general public can’t afford it, the government subsidizes it.” If that were the case, early childhood education should have been queued years ago.

“If someone isn’t gonna get rich off of it, [a bill] might not pass,” Gilliam told me. He noted that to pass a policy funding early child care, the proposal must characterize the care as necessary to other things constituents care about, namely their own assets. While child care buttresses familial life, business often takes precedence.

Early childhood education, then, presents a difficult business model. Many childcare centers struggle to generate revenue and fairly compensate staff, incentivizing fewer people to join the field. A third of programs operate in debt, and 71.8 percent are short-staffed. Providers and parents across Connecticut, particularly those who belong to and serve marginalized populations, are often forced to make decisions in a broken, contradictory market. 

In the spring of 2022, the median wage of a childcare professional was $14.97 per hour, hardly exceeding the state minimum wage of $14 at the time. Many of these professionals have earned their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and yet they are compensated like entry-level workers. Bermúdez Zimmerman told me that both locally and nationally, solutions for recovering the funding deficit are still in the early stages. While there are state-subsidized readiness programs, they struggle to employ and retain qualified staff members. 

“It’s a rotating door, it’s not sustainable,” Bermúdez Zimmerman said. Educators seek security amidst a shortage of qualified staff, the backbone but most challenging aspect of the industry.

Developing and operating an early childcare program requires a level of attention and care that far transcends the glorified babysitter stigma—that the extent of the job is merely monitoring children.

Devonna Lewis, who currently teaches at a New Haven public school pre-kindergarten program, experienced the impact of this pay firsthand. Lewis began her career in early education at a private center. At the time, she was a 24-year-old single mother seeking child care for her daughter. Now, decades later, even after receiving her associate’s degree, little has changed as far as financial insecurity in the industry. Lewis told me that there is no way to win—either hardly subsist on minimum wage or make $10 beyond the threshold and lose out on food stamps, healthcare, and other government assistance covered under state general financial assistance programs. 

Yet while childcare professionals struggle to make ends meet, infant care in Connecticut is still prohibitively expensive—25.5 percent more per year than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. According to Goldburn, educators mostly use revenue for technical maintenance like fixing licensing issues, facility repairs, and citations. Despite the need for these programs, many childhood educators are struggling to swim in a market of contradictions—a highly competitive landscape with three thousand, eight hundred staff vacancies and an essential service barely treading water. The money parents pay is not streaming into teachers’ pockets; rather, it is financing overhead costs.

Lottie Brown, another New Haven-based childcare provider, runs her decade-old business out of her home, a completely baby-proofed facility with a colorful array of puzzles, art supplies, and occupied gardening trays. In Brown’s experience working in her own business and the New Haven public school system, classrooms serve as safe havens for young children. According to Brown, some of these children were born surrounded by drug usage—3-year-olds have come into Brown’s care cursing and sporting “drug paraphernalia.” “What happens to that child who found her mother unresponsive?” Brown asked. Her experience with children who have been brought up in unsafe circumstances propelled her to step in as a childcare professional.

Developing and operating an early childcare program requires a level of attention and care that far transcends the glorified babysitter stigma—that the extent of the job is merely monitoring children. Early childhood educators find themselves preparing both academic and emotional toolkits. To help build their confidence and self-esteem, Brown encourages her students to engage with one another and their surroundings. 

“Children need structure, but they also need opportunities to learn without teacher-directed things,” Brown told me. Purging her program of digital devices, teaching her students how to garden, and helping them pick up a paintbrush all allow the children under Brown’s care to advance lifelong skills.

But a solid curriculum is not enough for a program to thrive, according to Goldburn. The program has to be marketable. Improving retention rates and appealing to wealthy patrons means that her program and many others must spend their income to comply with industry standards and bring in quality resources. When facilities are struggling to meet those expectations, Brown reflects, licensing divisions and families alike may perceive the program to be lower in quality. Yet centers can only work within their means. Less than a third of childcare centers in Connecticut report a positive cash flow

Without the money to afford expensive facilities and equipment, childcare programs must try to circumvent whatever judgment that might be easy for onlookers to pass. “All people are left with is what they see,” Goldburn said. And what many see are centers that are providing high-quality care without high-quality resources. Achieving such standards has a price tag, namely, the enormous wage penalty paid by early childhood educators. It is a financial burden taken on primarily by women of color—whose labor is underpaid and undervalued. 

“Had it been a male-dominated industry, would we be facing the same challenges?” Anna Witkowski, Chief Education Officer for the Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County, asked me pointedly. Out of her one hundred forty employees, two are men. A previous male employee left to work at a Target, which paid $27 an hour compared to the $17.50 he made hourly as an early childhood educator. 

In an industry sustained by women—who comprise about 94 percent of childcare workers—these professionals struggle to disband the notions of glorified babysitting and passivity often associated with their jobs.

Friends Center for Children Executive Director Allyx Schiavone explained that the societal denigration of contemporary early childhood educators exists within a history of exploitation. She urges us to confront a parallel reality: “The childcare system was born out of slavery.” Throughout antebellum America, Black enslaved women cared for the children of white slave owners. Modern disparities in education staffing and access embody the legacy of centuries worth of subjugation. 

“When we become so habituated to neglecting and exploiting a group,” Gilliam explained, “it becomes easier to not think about them at all.” 

Disregarding the experiences and histories of women of color perpetuates a childcare system that exploits their labor. Goldburn confirmed that the financial struggles experienced by childcare industry professionals are most acute in marginalized communities. Black early educators are paid on average $0.78 less per hour than their white peers, which adds up to more than one thousand dollars lost annually.

The Second Mortgage         

Connecticut provides a state-subsidized childcare program—Care 4 Kids—to families with an income of less than 60 percent of the state median income. It is the only subsidy-based childcare program in the state of its kind in that it supports independent providers. And while many families benefit greatly from the financial assistance, most still have to make partial payments, upwards of 30 percent of their income, to keep their children enrolled in child care. 

According to the state’s plan for the federal Child Care and Development Fund, Care 4 Kids reimbursed 52 percent of the market rate for infant and toddler care and 30 percent of that for preschoolers. A discrepancy between the true cost of child care and what providers receive leaves parents struggling to pay the difference on their own. This divide—coupled with slow processing time and a lack of easily available knowledge—limits Care 4 Kids’ ability to fully aid Connecticut parents.

The Care 4 Kids website defines childcare providers as early childhood centers licensed by the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood or a close relative designated to watch over a child. Care 4 Kids sends a Child Care Certificate to admitted applicants, which authorizes payment for services for up to a year. Families must undergo an annual redetermination process to reaffirm their eligibility for the program.

Throughout the final months of 2022, Care 4 Kids covered a considerable portion of New Haven mom Christina Moore’s childcare fees. Like the families of over twenty-five thousand other children enrolled in Care 4 Kids, Moore met an income limit of less than 60 percent of the State Median Income. She needed a daycare to supplement her efforts to support her son’s learning while she worked full-time. With the promise of these subsidies, Moore enrolled her 2-year-old son in daycare. 

But even with the state aid, her son’s child care placed an increasingly heavy financial burden on her family. Due to a marginal increase in her income, Moore had to pay a “family fee”—an out-of-pocket cost based on her gross income—to keep her son enrolled in daycare when he turned 3. As Care 4 Kids withdrew part of their financial assistance, Moore started sending her son to daycare two days a week instead of five. She had to adjust her work schedule to accommodate her son being home. 

Moore moved her son into another pre-kindergarten readiness program this past year. But the new center had not been inspected. Childcare centers in Connecticut are expected to undergo state-mandated health and safety inspections, including training requirements in CPR, medication administration, and other forms of emergency preparedness. But centers are expected to front the cost of inspection—a cost that some cannot afford. 

If Moore had been forced to foot the bill while seeking Care 4 Kids coverage, she would have had to sacrifice a third of her mortgage in the name of keeping her son enrolled in daycare. Luckily, the education center held off on charging her from February through June while Care 4 Kids evaluated its case. Moore was not interested in paying a “second mortgage” for child care—and neither was her sister, Karla Hicks. Following Moore’s advice, Hicks applied for the Care 4 Kids subsidy in September of 2022 and was approved within a month, just before the annual wave of fall applications. Hicks attributes her acceptance to the good fortune of insider knowledge: “If you don’t know about [Care 4 Kids] on your own, you would never know about it.”

Jameila McKee, a full-time working mother of two infants and a New Haven resident, also found Care 4 Kids’ uncertain process to interfere with her job. In McKee’s experience, the stress was not only in affording daycare but also in finding an available one. McKee’s Care 4 Kids application was a several-month-long process that could not begin until after her acceptance and commitment to a daycare, many of which have sizable waitlists. McKee was working full time and struggled to simultaneously tour daycares and continue paying her bills. While daycare providers aim to uphold their commitment to foster partnerships between educators and parents, not every parent can afford to take on their part of that commitment.

Another New Haven parent, Asia Huff, had heard of Care 4 Kids, but her knowledge of the program was limited until after giving birth, when a woman started visiting with check-ins, plug covers, pantry items, gift cards, and the suggestion that she apply. The woman was an agent for the Nurturing Families Network, a state-funded program that strives to work collaboratively with “high-risk first-time parents” by providing educational and emotional relief. Free of charge, she supported Huff postpartum, including advising her on the Care 4 Kids application. “Without the woman that comes to visit me, I would be lost,” Huff told me. 

The parents I spoke with emphasized how Care 4 Kids is wrapped in an implicit exclusivity—and these barriers to entry complicate its mission to help families most in need. Each of the mothers I spoke with—Moore, Hicks, Huff, and McKee—all shared an anticipation for the glory age of 5 when they could finally defer to the public school system to receive guaranteed state-funded education. Only then will they no longer have to strictly budget their family finances just to ensure their children are cared for. 

Inside Hope for New Haven.

After Class

Ultimately, educators and parents alike seem to realize the only way to achieve more state and national support—including desperately needed financing—is to advocate for themselves, time and time again. 

Over the last few years, the pandemic compounded frustrations that had always existed among parents and educators. The federal government handed the industry a disappointing aid package in deceivingly generous wrapping. In 2021, Connecticut received $346 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding, dedicated specifically to providing operational support for stability and expansion in the childcare industry. But that one-time funding has now dried up. Meanwhile, childcare professionals risked their lives daily to uphold their commitments to their students and their communities, as well as the broader economy. There was no better opportunity for the state to show its appreciation than the 2022-2023 Biennial Budget Report, the first iteration of which was approved by the legislature in 2021.

A year later in February of 2022, upon the release of forecasted budget adjustments, Goldburn waited three days to allow the policy team at the Connecticut Voices for Children and Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance to analyze childcare centers’ budgets. The Alliance confirmed her worst fears: Connecticut legislators had allocated no additional funding to support the industry. In the next two weeks, Goldburn and her colleagues—Bermúdez Zimmerman from Child Care for Connecticut and Schiavone, along with other providers and policy experts representing childcare centers, coalitions, and universal child care campaigns across the state—mobilized. On March 15, 2022, three hundred and fifty childcare professionals, parents, and their children staged a “Morning Without Child Care” demonstration on the New Haven Green from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Goldburn and her colleagues stepped away from their work lives to demonstrate what would happen if the childcare industry withdrew their services, even if just for an hour. 

“We struggled about removing what [families] need to survive to ‘punish’ or raise awareness for decision-makers,” Schiavone said about the ethical dilemma of hitting pause on the workforce. Educators feared if they had not called people to action, no one would have.

The action worked. In May of 2022, Connecticut boasted a shiny new armistice: “The biggest investment in child care [and] education…in our state’s history.” The amended 2022-2023 biennial budget report allocated $183 million to the early childhood education industry, a more than twofold increase in what they had been previously receiving from the state. “There was a straight line between what we did in that rally and what was put in the budget,” Goldburn told me. And still, this figure represented just a quarter of the investment needed for survival.

The message of the first “Morning Without Child Care” rally in 2022 resonated with childcare providers, parents, and families nationwide. Advocates in Connecticut more than doubled their state’s investment in early childhood and saw legal recognition from President Biden as he issued an executive order to support affordable care and quality jobs for care professionals. The work of Goldburn and her colleagues reignited within a nationwide effort on March 8, 2023—International Women’s Day—demanding an equitable and just care system. Schiavone said that this second effort “solidified us [childcare professionals] as workers that could turn out constituents. It brought us together as a community in ways we’ve never been connected.” In this second wave of rallying, advocates were motivated by the residual unfulfilled costs from the previous fiscal year and the latest budget report released in February which boasted what Goldburn described as mere “marginal increases.”

The 2024-2025 state budget added $67.5 million to Care 4 Kids, an 11 percent increase since the initial forecast which was projected to account for seventeen thousand children statewide. But there were still 18,384 unenrolled children to be accounted for who were left without child care upon the forced closures of 11.3 percent of classrooms that could not afford to stay open as of this past May. So while more money was made available to providers amid the withdrawal of federal COVID-19 relief funding, supply remained limited. With fewer openings, families who could pay the competitive rates of child care out of pocket would take precedence over those who could not. Ultimately, the names of the families with the least means would be the ones collecting dust on the waiting lists.

Change is about turning power over to the early childcare workforce, one that has been long neglected and underestimated. The Connecticut legislature recently passed a bill that would push the eligibility for kindergarteners so that a third of children born in 2019 would have their enrollment delayed into elementary school. The educational system skeleton is delicate and disjointed. The additional strain this would place on educators and parents speaks volumes about who should get to decide the flow of money and resources in this industry. Nonetheless, there will be educators who show up to their jobs so that everyone else can show up for their communities, even when it brushes the impossible.

Bermúdez Zimmerman raised the proposition of a flexible spending account, ideated by those at the Child Care for Connecticut’s Future coalition. In April, Governor Lamont issued an executive order to initiate a Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Care made up of parents, educators, and legislators that would be charged with developing a five-year strategic plan for the childcare system. The American Rescue Plan is set to issue another round of funds for Connecticut’s cities. 

At the time of publication, $10 million is slated to be allocated to New Haven’s youth, and the city intended to reserve $3 million for child care, to be partly administered by Goldburn’s advocacy non-profit organization CERCLE, a component of Hope for New Haven. 

“This is the beginning of a conversation,” Bermúdez Zimmerman told me. 

Establishing some type of trust or giving private businesses public features are other ways in which people could orient their solution-forward thinking. Bermúdez Zimmerman gave the example of a quasi-public structure, which would provide private programs with a public mandate to deliver their services. Converting money and power into the hands of industry professionals would make it so that “legislature does not have authority to dip their hands into whatever they want,” according to Bermúdez Zimmerman. Early childhood educators are entrusted with the lives of the community’s children daily, they should also be entrusted with their financial independence.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” Bermúdez Zimmerman admits. “The last two years have been the most fruitful in getting legislators to pay attention. Things are tough now, but we’re doing our work.”

–Chloe Nguyen is a sophomore in Saybrook College and an Associate Editor of the New Journal.

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