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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alliance pressing for pandemic relief funds to boost ‘crucial industry’ of child care

Jamie Tate, manager at Little Scholars Development Center, helps Leston Andrews, 3, with a coloring exercise on Tuesday at center in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

One of the consequences of the pandemic that has rippled through our community – economically, socially and psychologically – is shrinking access to child care.

Sixteen child care centers closed in Spokane over the past two years, according to an accounting by the Spokane Alliance. That represents almost 10% of early learning capacity in this community.

This has heaped added strain on already-strained parents and families, as well as on child care workers who carried on during the coronavirus pandemic with low pay and high stress. It’s had downstream effects on employment and the economy – the kind of effects that the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan is meant to offset.

That’s why the alliance is calling for a more robust slice of that federal relief, which is being delivered to regional governments, to be dedicated to supporting parents and the child care industry.

“If we want people back at work, we need child care,” said Katie Zinler, lead organizer for the alliance. “The people working in the child care industry are the bedrock of our economy.”

The Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of churches, unions and community groups representing more than 20,000 adults in Spokane County, is holding a public meeting Thursday night to call on local leaders to make serious investments in child care, hoping that it can persuade leaders to direct $10 million of more than $200 million in ARPA money that is coming to Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County.

So far, as governments work through the process of identifying how to spend their ARPA funds, only the city of Spokane has committed to putting funds toward child care; it will vote Monday to raise its commitment from $1 million to $3 million, out of an overall $80 million that will come to the city. Zinler said her organization has not been able so far to get county commissioners to meet to discuss their request for support from the county’s $101 million in ARPA funds.

Amanda CastroLang is a member of the alliance, and a mother of two. During the pandemic, she and her husband found themselves in a position familiar to many struggling parents: trying to balance work and family life, and finding that the pandemic made a difficult situation even worse.

Before the pandemic, she and her husband were both working, earning too much to qualify for child care subsidies but facing potential child care costs that were daunting. He was working days, and her job at a grocery store had her working night shifts.

On top of the challenge of affordability, there were simply no spots available when she began looking for care during the pandemic.

“We kept looking and looking and looking, trying to find child care centers with openings,” she said.

Eventually, she chose to stay home with her children – now 2 and 7 – and work part time. They also get help from her in-laws, the kind of family help that is so crucial to those fortunate enough to have it.

Even before the pandemic, accessible and affordable child care for working families was difficult to come by. The coronavirus heaped enormous challenges on top of that – with consequences for both parents and the people working in the industry.

Kerra Bower, owner/director of Little Scholars Development Center, has seen parents struggling with a whole range of stressors as we come out of the pandemic. Many of them make it difficult for people to achieve the most fundamental, essential functions of living as a family: spending time together.

“Mom’s working days. Dad’s working nights,” she said. “Mom’s working Saturdays. Dad’s working Sundays. When is the family supposed to be together and build?”

She sees her work as crucial for supporting families in their work lives, in order for them to earn enough to support themselves and maintain contact with each other. The toll that work takes on employees is significant, she said.

During the pandemic, she saw almost her entire staff turn over, mostly for reasons related to mental or physical health, she said.

ARPA funds are similar to the CARES Act money that came into local governments in 2021, but they are focused less on a speedy turnaround and come with more restrictions. The program is targeted at replacing government revenues lost to the pandemic emergency; helping small businesses, households and hard-hit industries; paying essential workers; and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

A child care industry in crisis would seem to fit these criteria in several ways. The Alliance proposes directing nearly $5 million to child care providers, based on the number of children served and full-time employees. It also proposes providing $600 monthly stipends to families whose incomes are just above the qualifying limits for state subsidies – but who still can’t afford to pay all their bills and afford child care – and hiring mental health consultants that could be deployed through the industry.

Governments will have until 2026 to spend their ARPA dollars, and there are many other competing interests. But no family that ever tried to balance work and child care would fail to understand how central such care is to the ability of families, and the workforce, to thrive.

“Child care’s too expensive and the people working in child care are underpaid and overworked,” Zinler said. “We need a robust community investment in this crucial industry.”

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to correct the amount of money the alliance is proposing for direct support for child care centers.