Can the federal relief bill fix Nevada child care’s long-standing shortcomings?

"Prior to covid, we already had a capacity issue,” notes a state official. “We were struggling to meet the needs with available seats.” (Photo by cottonbro from Pexels)

The number of licensed child care providers is down 8% from pre-pandemic levels, according to new numbers from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there were 675 licensed child care providers statewide. Now, there are 625. That represents an 8% drop from pre-pandemic levels, which were already seen as inadequate by state administrators and child advocates.

But those numbers also reflect a significant bounceback for an industry badly bruised by the pandemic. Although they were deemed essential businesses and allowed to stay open, many child care operators saw enrollment plummet as parents lost jobs or began working from home. The difficulty of obtaining personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic and the reduced capacity restrictions also made it difficult to keep doors open.

Dozens of child care providers closed their doors. Advocates feared they might not reopen as the wider economy recovered, which would further burden families — but especially women, who have left the workforce in greater numbers than men.

But it seems many child care operators in Nevada have been able to reopen. At the industry’s most dire point during the pandemic, the number of licensed child care providers was down by about 66% compared to pre-pandemic levels, says DHHS Child Care Development and Program Chief Christell Askew. That occurred around May 2020, when Nevada recorded a 25.3% unemployment rate.

Dozens of child care providers received forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, and Nevada received CARES Act relief money earmarked for the child care industry.

“That helped,” says Askew. “We are at 92% of the original number (of licensed providers). That’s not bad compared to some things we have seen elsewhere.”

Additional assistance is coming to the child care industry. The relief package passed by Congress earlier this month contains $38 billion nationwide for the child care industry. About $25 billion of that will be targeted directly toward operators and the rest set aside for grants and subsidies for low-income families.

Nevada’s share of that relief isn’t yet in the hands of state administrators, but they say they hope to gain approval to use the one-time temporary infusion of money in ways that result in permanent positive changes.

“Prior to covid, we already had a capacity issue,” says Askew. “We were struggling to meet the needs with available seats.”

Askew adds the relief money could be used to fund startup grants for providers in child care deserts or to set up wraparound or supportive services for the industry. For example, establishing what are called “staffed child care family networks” — programs that provide shared services for multiple small child care operators, helping them improve quality and stay in business.

“It’s about trying to take a look at the infrastructure of the industry and keep it going,” says Askew.

Advocates are similarly hopeful that lawmakers can leverage relief funds.

“I hope folks will pivot to see silver linings,” says Tiffany Tyler-Garner of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. “We have the opportunity to find the rainbow, should we be strategic in our will and efforts. We have coordination — with this relief (money) and we are in session — to focus on how we can dig out of long-standing challenges.”

In many states, including Nevada, child care costs more annually than in-state college tuition. Subsidies are available for low-income families but only a fraction of those who qualify actually receive them.

Nevada’s child care subsidy program waitlist has averaged 121 people for the last three months and 124 people over the last 13 months.

Growing capacity and reducing the waitlist takes public investment.

“We haven’t really prioritized kids and families in Nevada,” says Amanda Haboush-Deloye of the Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy. “That’s not where we’re putting our money. … We need to look at restructuring that if we want to see results.”

Haboush-Deloye notes that, in contrast to the K-12 school system, the child care industry is private. Parents pay and that money covers the expenses of the business. Subsidies cover some, but not all, of that parent cost. That setup has resulted in an industry that is by and large unable to sustain liveable wages for its employees or offer much incentive for sticking with the job and becoming better at helping young children develop.

The average hourly wage for child care workers is $10.

For parents who can pay, the system structure is not ideal but may still work. It’s the parents and families who cannot afford to pay full price who suffer.

“Their kids need the best start and they benefit from it the most,” says Haboush-Deloye. “Unless we can go in and better subsidize, there’s no way they’ll be able to pay for it on their own.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.