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How a ‘Life-Changing’ Subsidy Gave a Child Care Worker More Time with Family

Toys and child seats line the hallway of a preschool and child care center.

This story first appeared in How We Care, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring original reporting and perspectives on how we care for one another at all stages of life. Sign up for free here.

Pennsylvania needs more child care providers. Earlier this year, Spotlight PA reported that there were “about 6,400 certified child care centers or home-based programs in the state,” which is nearly 9% less than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other states are in the same position. Nationally, parents struggle to find and afford quality child care, while providers are limited in their ability to pay competitive wages — due in part to high labor costs. The annual mean salary for a child care worker in Pennsylvania is just $29,480, while that for a preschool teacher is $36,350, according to a May 2023 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, the average annual cost of center-based child care for toddlers in Pennsylvania is $11,346 a year, according to a 2023 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charity that advocates for youth.

One solution that’s taking hold in some states is to make child care more affordable for those workers so that they remain in the industry. Rhode Island has a pilot program that uses federal funds to cover the tuition costs for child care workers’ kids.

One worker who has benefited from this program is Marci Then. Then, a mother of two, earns $16.50 an hour as a caregiver at Little Learners Academy of Smithfield, where one of her daughters is enrolled. Before participating in the pilot, she spent a substantial part of her budget on child care. According to the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, a typical family in the program saves $1,134 a month.

Then credits it with helping her stretch her income and giving her more time with her family. In this interview, which has been condensed for clarity and length, Then discusses the program’s effect on her family’s well-being and why she is a caregiver.

Spotlight PA: When you started at Little Learners Academy, was the pilot program already going on? Or did that come later?

Marci Then: It was just a very few months into me working here, they let me know about it and let me know it would be a good opportunity. And I said, “Of course.”

Were you already getting some financial help with paying for child care?

Nothing.

So you were paying full price for tuition. What’s the difference between then and now in your monthly budget?

It’s a blessing, honestly. Because, had that not been implemented, then I don’t think I’d be able to spend time with my family Sundays. I would definitely have to get another job to make up for it.

I suffer from anxiety, so I get very overwhelmed easily. So just the thought of not being in balance, and not being able to manage everything bothers me. This was an amazing opportunity. It’s a large weight off my shoulders.

You’re working 40 hours a week and you’re the primary caregiver for two people. I don’t even know how you would have a second job, hypothetical. Where are there hours in the week?

I would probably look for something on the weekends. Before I started here, I was just managing on the weekends, trying to squeeze time in.

This is a pilot program, so it is not permanent yet. What do you want policymakers in your state to know about the importance of this program?

Well, the obvious is that it is absolutely life-changing. It will accommodate a family that is in need. And being able to be in the child care setting, and also see how your kid is treated, it’s really nice.

And to be clear, your daughter isn’t in your classroom, correct?

No. But we see each other on the playground. (Laughs.) I get to see her here and there.

What should policymakers in other states know about this program? We don’t have this in Pennsylvania.

No matter where you’re located there’s always not only single parents, but parents struggling to maintain a household, let alone put their children in a good school.

Child care facilities really struggle to recruit people and then maintain staff because the economics are so brutal. It costs so much to put your kid in daycare. But at the same time, people like you are making modest incomes. Do you think it might attract more people to work in child care?

Absolutely. And I think it’s a relief also. You’re coming to work, and you don’t have to worry about, “Hey, I got to drop off my kid over here before wherever.”

If or when the program ends, what would that mean for you and your family?

It would probably mean no sit-down dinners. It definitely would mean me working on the weekends. So it would cut down on our family time together. I think it would raise my anxiety just because I would be all over the place.

Who would take care of your daughters while you’re working even more?

I’m very lucky. If there’s anything that I need to do, both girls will stay with my parents. Not everybody has a support system. And I do have a great one.

Do you think you’ll stay working in child care after your daughter goes to kindergarten?

Yeah, definitely. I like what I do. It’s very rewarding work. Seeing the kiddos grow up and seeing them actually take in what you’re teaching them, it’s nice.

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