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ARPA childcare funds end this week. Here's how it could affect South Carolina

Time is running out of federal money available to childcare centers. Barring an extension, pandemic-era funds will end on Sept. 30, the last day of the federal government fiscal year.
Markus Spiske
Time is running out of federal money available to childcare centers. Barring an extension, pandemic-era funds will end on Sept. 30, the last day of the federal government fiscal year.

September 30 is the last day of the U.S. government fiscal year. It’s also the last day, barring a late-hour extension, that the federal government will make available Covid pandemic-era funds dedicated to childcare through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).

In South Carolina, just over a quarter-million dollars remains of the state’s share of ARPA childcare money ($954.6 million) allotted in 2020. The state Department of Social Services, or DSS, manages the fund; Connelly-Anne Ragley, chief external affairs officer at DSS, says the agency has been, is, and plans to continue allocating “every last available dollar that has been directly dispersed to the agency on childcare.”

The end of ARPA funding for childcare on the national stage, however, concerns some who work in an industry in which the state’s average full-time salary adds up to just over $22,000 per year for early childhood workers.

“Most people are not in it for the money,” says Lynn Pollard, an early childhood educator in Greenville. “But you still have to pay gas, you’ve got to go to the grocery store.”

This is the core of the main dilemma childcare facilities face, and not just in South Carolina: How can they pay workers a living wage without pricing their services too high for parents to afford to pay for them? And how can you lure people who would be good childcare workers and educators to a career that all but requires a life partner who makes a lot of money?

“I know the sacrifices that [childcare workers] are already making just to stay in a field that they love,” says Amanda McDougald-Scott, a Greenville-based researcher and consultant in the childcare field. “Many of them can only stay in the field because they have a spouse who's helping cover … living expenses. They're working two and three jobs, which is not sustainable.”

It’s also not easy for childcare centers to find good long-term workers who need to meet education and licensing requirements (that cost money) when better pay awaits at far easier-to-get jobs.

“Our competition is fast food,” says Meredith Burton, director of the Child Development Center at Furman University, and public policy chair for the South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children. “I mean, literally. I can interview somebody one minute and an hour later, they can be three blocks up the street and McDonald's being offered a signing bonus and more money hourly than I can pay. It's a real problem.”

It is unlikely that the funds directed to childcare will be extended, even as some Congressional Democrats are trying to muster enough support to do that. They face a suite of competing fiscal issues on Capitol Hill, though; not the least being a push to rein in federal spending that portends another shutdown of the federal government if the U.S. House can’t hash out next year’s budget.

Even if funding is extended past Sept. 30, it’s less likely still that it will be extended permanently, as many in the childcare field would like to see happen.

McDougald-Scott says the infusion of federal money into the field had reach far beyond pandemic-era emergency.

“That pandemic money was just such a huge help to a system that was already struggling even before the pandemic,” she says. “Taking that money back away is just going to have a devastating effect on childcare, I'm afraid.”

If some estimates of how bad the future could get for childcare facilities are even half true, McDougald-Scott has a right to be worried. A June report by the Century Foundation warns that without a more permanent funding model to support childcare, 3.2 million American children might lose access to it. The report concludes that the impact of no more federal funds could cost South Carolina 2,681 industry jobs, see 618 facilities close, and cut 49,335 children off from childcare access.

Ragley disputes the conclusions of this report, saying that no one ever contacted DSS for its perspective. She also says she does not see the end of ARPA funds as a harbinger of doom for the childcare industry.

“Our legacy providers [have] been operating and in business 10, 15, 20, 25, even longer years,” Ragley says. “I think of some family-owned businesses that have passed from generation to generation in serving and caring for children in South Carolina. Those providers, they weren't built with government stimulus funds or a handout from the government. They were built by hard work and determination and making sound business decisions. So I do not believe the lack of funding will impact centers or their opening plans.”

McDougald-Scott is less optimistic. She is concerned that tying childcare to employment could lead to similar access and availability issues as benefits. She also says that getting a job in the first place is difficult when there's no reliable childcare in place to help job seekers look for work.

“It's really going to hurt when these dollars go away and childcare gets worse,” she says.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.