WHEN THE STATE required most daycares to close in the early days of the COVID pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker reassured providers that they would continue getting state subsidies during the closure.
“I thought to myself, he has no idea,” said Gina Tiberio Hamilton, a family childcare provider in Shrewsbury. “Fifty percent of family childcare providers don’t receive subsidies. We have nothing.”
Two-plus years later, daycare providers who are paid privately by families say they continue to feel left out, struggling for acknowledgement in policies that prioritize providers who take state subsidies.
“We had to introduce ourselves to stakeholders and legislators. They didn’t know we existed,” said Alyssa Kelley, a Plymouth childcare provider. “We’re trying to help them understand we’re all following the same regulations, doing the same things. We shouldn’t keep being divided.”
The recently proposed House budget played into the same narrative, proposing a large spending increase to help subsidized providers, but nothing for private pay providers. Legislators said it is a way to start improving the system, while prioritizing the most needy children.
“We have to start somewhere, and the subsidized programs serve our most vulnerable students and children,” said House Education Committee chair Alice Peisch.
But private pay providers say the parents they serve are struggling too. “Not everybody is wealthy,” Hamilton said. “A lot of our clients, grandma and grandpa, help pay tuition or they’re working two jobs, working overtime. I can’t say ‘We’re struggling because the cost of food and oil has gone up, you’re going to have to pay an extra $50 a week.’ It just doesn’t work.”
Massachusetts has around 7,500 licensed childcare providers, which includes both centers and family childcares that operate out of the caregiver’s home. According to pre-pandemic figures, about half received subsidies, in which the state pays the tuition of at least one low-income or otherwise at-risk child (for example, a foster child). These subsidies generally pay less than market rate. The rest of the providers are private pay, funded entirely by parent tuition.
According to a recent report by a special commission studying the economics of childcare, in fiscal 2022, around $991 million in childcare spending came from the state or federal government, while parents paid $1.27 billion.
Private pay providers have been eligible for Child Care Stabilization Grants during the pandemic, which several providers said have been helpful.
But nearly 1,400 childcare providers have closed since the pandemic, and the state commission report found that two-thirds of the closures were private pay providers. Only 6 percent of subsidized providers closed, compared to 28 percent of all private pay providers.
Hamilton runs a Facebook page for childcare providers and says she sees constant postings by providers deciding to shut down. “They’re so stressed out right now, they’re so tired of being disrespected that it’s just not worth it,” she said. “It’s been a long two years, and as private pay providers we feel like the red-headed stepchildren.”
The providers say they believe subsidies for low-income children should be increased – but they also have financial struggles. If families cut back how many days a week they need childcare, the provider is left with an open slot the other days. Sometimes children drop out mid-year due to changes in family circumstances, and it takes providers time to fill the spot. Beth Sidel, who cares for children in Montague, said she used to have waitlists, but in her region there seem to be fewer kids seeking care post-pandemic, so her enrollment has dropped.
Sidel said the children she cares for are also vulnerable. “I don’t think any one of us are saying low-income people shouldn’t have help. They should,” Sidel said. “What we’re saying is the middle class should be included. People one paycheck away from qualifying for a voucher shouldn’t be forgotten, and they’re getting left behind over and over again.”