Inflation squeezes Georgia child care centers

Bells Ferry Learning Centers in Marietta and Woodstock have seen expenses rise as a result of inflation. (Bells Ferry Learning Centers)

Georgia child care centers have struggled with staffing and revenue shortages during the pandemic. Now they’re also battling inflation, paying higher prices for items like food and gas.

“Food is the greatest, the biggest expense of a child care program after staff and it’s not just the food items themselves, it’s also delivery and it’s happening at a time when revenue is down and that’s related largely to challenges hiring teachers,” says Pam Tatum, the president and CEO of Quality Care for children, which helps Georgia families find child care.

Sharon Foster owns Bells Ferry Learning Centers in Woodstock and Marietta. She says her monthly expenses are much higher than they were last year.

“Payroll is one that’s up seven and a half percent, that that’s $3,500 a month for me,” Foster says. “A lot of [the increase] is having to do with trying to make sure that our existing staff can keep up with the rising costs that they’re experiencing. And then also because we’ve had to increase pay in order to attract staff during this crisis of being short-staffed. Food is up $28-$100 a month. Fuel is up 38 percent.”

Recent reports show 53% of child care teachers are on public assistance, and 31% experience food insecurity. The median hourly wage for child care workers is $13.22/hour.

In a recent QCC survey, 88 percent of respondents said they could serve more children if they could afford to hire more staff.

“We have parents and children who have been turned away because [centers] don’t have the teachers to work with them,” Tatum says. “And we have some classrooms sitting empty. So that means…revenue is down for child care program at a time when all of these prices are increasing.”

Foster says that’s true for both of her centers.

“Our enrollment is back up to equal or a bit over pre-pandemic levels, and we could still accept more children if we had more staff,” she says.

Unlike the public K-12 system, Pam Tatum points out child care centers don’t have a huge budget to draw from funded by taxpayers.

“Child care programs can only pay what their revenue will allow them to pay, and that revenue is largely parent fees,” she says.

Due to inflation, center operators like Sharon Foster have had to raise those fees.

“We have to increase tuition in order to cover these costs,” Foster says. “Parents don’t need an increase in child care. Every other aspect of their life is seeing an increased cost. I hate to add child care to that list.”

There are some potential solutions. Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) has helped by using federal stimulus money to issue grants to providers. The agency has also given all child care workers—from teachers to directors to cooks—a $1000 bonus.

Foster says federal officials could also increase funding to the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which would let parents with higher incomes qualify for the program. That would provide more subsidies for centers and open up more spots for children, she says.

Tatum says Quality Care for Children has a free provider resource hub that lets child care centers negotiate discounts on goods and services. QCC has helped some providers with menu planning and is also working on developing a central kitchen that could prepare meals for centers to save them time and money.

There are efforts afoot to help child care centers. They include:

  • Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, has co-sponsored the Care is an Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) Act. The measure would require Economic Development Districts to show how they’ll increase access to services including child care. “I carried the words with me of a parent who came to a child care provider who was closed during COVID, and she told her, ‘Corona[virus] might kill me, but poverty definitely will if I can’t go to work and provide for my family,'” Williams told WABE.
  • Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announced in his ‘State of the City’ address Atlanta will invest $5 million in early childhood education. He challenged Atlanta Public Schools to match that investment and for the private sector to commit $10 million to the effort.
  • Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) has used federal stimulus funds to expand the Child and Parent Services (CAPS) program, which provides child care subsidies to families who qualify. The program usually serves 50,000 children and has been able to serve an additional 10,000 kids during the pandemic.