Op-Ed: Congress must address the impending child care crisis facing NJ families

By Rep. Mikie Sherrill

The United States stands dangerously close to a child care funding cliff, with the health of the economy and families’ financial stability hanging in the balance. Without action, thousands of child care centers across America could close their doors, costing families and the economy billions of dollars — both in lost earnings for parents and in economic activity for businesses.

It’s alarming, right? 

Too often, the pressing issue of affordable child care doesn’t get the attention it deserves because it’s sidelined as simply a women’s issue. But we know that’s not the case — child care is an issue that touches everyone and, if unaddressed, the impending funding cliff will have ripple effects through almost every aspect of our economy. 

Child care is personal to me. As a mother of four kids under the age of 18, there were times when I was handing over almost my entire paycheck to cover child care expenses. In fact, after I left the Navy and went to law school, I took a semester off because I wasn’t comfortable with my child care options. And like so many parents, I found myself on the brink of a difficult choice: Do I continue working, or take five years off until my kids get to kindergarten? 

Earlier this year, I spoke with a police sergeant from Chatham about his family’s experience finding child care. He and his wife, at that time a teacher, have two kids born 20 months apart. They knew child care would be expensive, but didn’t have family to pitch in and they both had professional goals for their work in public service. While they were able to find a quality spot for their children, they were often the first to drop their kids off and the last to pick them up because of work commitments. Adding to the stress, their monthly child care expenses were more than their monthly home mortgage. He doesn’t know how his family managed to pull it off, but they did so making a lot of sacrifices along the way — all while continuing their careers in law enforcement and public schools. 

These are the gut-wrenching challenges that parents face every single day.  

Then the pandemic hit, making a tough child care climate even worse. In total, nearly 2 million women dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, and the lack of child care options was one of the main factors. That’s why I fought to pass the American Rescue Plan — which, in New Jersey, provided about $400 million in federal funding to help child care centers keep their doors open during the pandemic and continue providing for the families who needed them. I’ve heard from experts and advocates like Meghan Tavormina, President of New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children, and it’s clear that many providers would not have been able to survive if not for this funding. This support is crucial because the overhead costs for child care are high and, despite the critical care they provide, child care centers have not been able to raise wages to retain early educators without raising tuition prices. 

Now, these federal funds are set to expire at the end of September, and that’s why I’m sounding the alarm. 

In New Jersey alone, the cliff could result in more than 1,000 child care centers closing their doors, and more than 100,000 children could lose their care entirely. That also means millions more in added costs for New Jersey families and countless child care professionals out of work. 

Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) recently toured the YMCA of Montclair’s Early Learning Center to discuss critical childcare and community services provided to families in the greater Montclair area. Pictured left to right: YMCA Board Member Bob Davison, YMCA Executive Director Justine Perillo, Parent Tricia Mack, Parent Christina Vassallo, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, Parents Sophia Kenny and Chris Kenny,  Parent Yingsha Liao, and YMCA President and CEO Buddy Evans.

That’s why last week, I introduced legislation to extend this critical federal funding for child care centers for another five years. This funding would be a lifeline for the parents and children that rely on child care centers, and for the providers who need the federal assistance to keep their doors open. This isn’t a partisan issue — and I hope that Congressional leadership, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, will treat this with the urgency it demands.

Even before the cliff, I introduced the Child Care for Every Community Act, modeled after Head Start and the military’s child care program. This bill would ensure that no family has to pay more than seven percent of their income toward child care expenses. Right now, the average cost of care for New Jersey families with an infant and a two-year old is a whopping $2,635 per month. But under my bill, many of these New Jersey families would pay no more than $200 per month. The legislation also invests in child care workers to help attract and retain quality early educators to support children during their most critical period of development.

It is imperative that Congress takes action both for the short term and the long term — passing legislation to address the child care cliff, finally bringing down the cost of child care for families, and ensuring the fantastic workforce in New Jersey can continue to thrive. 

This is about economic security and peace of mind for parents, and part of my work to make New Jersey a better and more affordable place to live. Giving parents access to quality, affordable child care will unlock even more economic opportunity. As a mother and as a Member of Congress, it’s personal — so I’ll fight like hell to make progress on this issue for the Garden State.