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Greenville Business Magazine

Business Leaders Ask Policymakers to Address Growing Child Care Crisis in South Carolina

Dec 01, 2023 09:30AM ● By Angelia Davis

(Photo by Angelia Davis)

By Angelia Davis

The child care crisis in South Carolina is growing, hurting families, businesses, and taxpayers, at a cost that could reach $1.4 billion a year.

That’s according to a new report, “The Growing, Annual Cost of Infant-Toddler Child Care Crisis in South Carolina,” by ReadyNation, a group of business executives “committed to building a skilled workforce by promoting solutions that prepare children to succeed in education, work, and life.”

During a gathering Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, at Small Impressions Child Development Center in Taylors, ReadyNation members said they are asking state policymakers to prioritize addressing the crisis. 

Bob Morgan, ReadyNation member and president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said a new legislative study committee, created to specifically look at the state’s child care crisis, was also holding its first meeting Thursday morning. 

“We wish them Godspeed in this important and timely work,” he said. “We’re all anxious to hear of the conversations that they are about to begin in preparation for the 2024 legislative session.”

ReadyNation’s newly released report is a “redo” of a 2018 report in which the nationwide economic impact of the lack child care for infants and toddlers was $57 billion. The new nationwide number is $122 billion.

“We’re concerned with the way the costs have more than doubled in the last four years,” said ReadyNation National Director Nancy Fishman. “If a change isn’t made, things will only continue to get worse.”

Morgan said, “Simply put, without child care, parents can’t work, Morgan said.  “The childcare workforce is the workforce behind every other workforce.”

South Carolina has approximately 167,000 children under the age of 3. Sixty-one percent of those children have mothers in the workforce, he said. But the challenges around child care aren’t limited to the negative career impacts on parents.

“As someone who talks to business leaders across our state every day, child care is one of their top concerns and a barrier to workforce growth and economic development,” he said. 

As of November 27, 2023, Morgan said, this state had 78,000 jobs that were going unfilled.

And, Morgan said, a 2022 survey conducted by the Department of Employee and Workforce said individuals of working age, but not in the workforce, cited lack of child care or the need to stay with a child as a top barrier.

The infants and toddlers of 2023 will become the high school students of the 2030s and the new workforce of the 2040s, Morgan said.

“If we want the best workforce possible and if we want the best lives possible for these children, we need to make sure they have the best care possible during a crucial irreplaceable time of brain development the first few years of life,” he said. “The report highlights that fact and shows us just why the childcare crisis is such a concern for business leaders as well as parents.

The hurdles parents face are the three legs of the stool – access, affordability and quality, he said.

 Access is an issue because nearly half or 42 percent of South Carolinians live in child care deserts, meaning there are more than three young children for every available, licensed child care slot, Morgan said.

The number of child care providers decreased significantly in the wake of the pandemic. Affordability is also a concern, as the lack of supply of available slots helped drive up costs, he said. 

Currently, the average cost of center-based childcare is $9,048 per year which represents 9 percent of the median annual income of a married couple in South Carolina, according to Morgan. Seven percent is considered affordable, he said.

Quality is the third major challenge, often caused by high rates of employee turnover, frequently due to poor compensation, he said.

“We know businesses play a role in solving the childcare crisis through onsite child care, financial support for employees to access child care and advocating for effective child care policy,” Morgan said.

“As the report shows and as we’ve seen over the past four years, a failure to strengthen our fragile child care infrastructure will lead to increasing economic damage to employees, workers and taxpayers,” he said.

Jack McBride, CEO of Contec Inc. in Spartanburg and a member of ReadyNation’s national CEO Task Force and board of directors, said if the child care problem isn’t fixed, it’s going to be hard to attract people and manufacturers to the state.

South Carolina has done a great job over the past 10 years of attracting more manufacturers to the state, but what is hurting the industry is the fact that there are so many open positions,” he said.

“We’ve had over 30 open positions at our company over the past five years, and a lot of that is due to the fact that people can’t get childcare. It’s been especially hard on the women in the workforce.”

There has been progress, McBride said, citing Governor Henry McMaster’s recent signing of a bill permanently authorizing South Carolina First Steps.

That was just the beginning, he said. Support is needed for quality centers like Small Impressions, he said.

A reason business leaders said they gathered at Small Impressions on Old Spartanburg Road is because it’s an example of a program that South Carolina parents need more of.

If children are not arriving in pre-K ready to learn, they’re probably going to be behind for the rest of their school career, McBride said.

“That puts the future workforce in jeopardy,” he said, “because the jobs that are coming back to the U.S., especially manufacturing, are a lot higher educational requirement jobs than the ones that left during the downfall of the textile industry so we as a state need to do more to support the industry.”

Lavonda Paul has owned and operated Small Impressions, which serves children ages 1 to 12, for 17 years.

She, too, shared concerns about the crisis facing child care programs in South Carolina.

Her facility is licensed for 139 children but has only 65 enrolled due to lack of staff. She pointed to low wages as a disincentive for more workers to join the child care field.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I’d like to say that I’m not just a child care facility for the children. I’m here for the parents as well. When they’re having an issue on their job, whether it be housing, or be connecting them with resources that they didn’t know were out there, that’s what we’re here for.  So, we’re not your typical child care center. We have been charged with so much, but yet we’re paid so little. This has to change.”

ReadyNation reports say the mean wage for child care providers in this state is $25,000 annually or about $12 an hour. Preschool teachers earn about $33,520 annually, and kindergarten teachers earn $52,960 a year.