It’s been two months since the federal government’s $24 billion in child care stabilization grants expired, sending the sector over what many have come to refer to as the “child care cliff.”

The relief, part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, was intended to avoid a worst-case scenario for the early care and education field while the country rebounded from the pandemic. To some degree, it worked. For the most part, programs stayed open, providers were able to supplement the otherwise paltry wages of their teachers, and most families didn’t have to absorb huge tuition hikes.

“It was unbelievable,” says Post-Brown, owner and director of Sunbeam Early Learning Center. “I’ve never gotten money like that.”

Colagrosso, who owns A Place to Grow Children’s Center, said the relief was stabilizing. Both providers had been receiving monthly checks of $27,000 from the federal package. They are among nearly 1,600 child care providers in West Virginia — and 220,000 nationwide — who received stabilization grants, totaling $160 million invested in early care and education in the state. They used the money to invest in their programs and in the people — mostly women — who keep their programs afloat.

But the checks stopped coming on Sept. 30. Without another source of funding to supplement the sector, which the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury has called a “textbook example of a broken market,” the problems that the relief money helped paper over are once again pronounced.

In the weeks after the funding expired, 29 percent of families nationally reported that their child care tuition had increased, according to a survey from the RAPID Survey Project and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and 28 percent of child care providers said they had reduced staff wages. Another quarter of providers reported that they were serving fewer children than when they’d been receiving stabilization funding.

“It makes sense,” says Boteach, “that when you take $24 billion out of a system that was already on the margins, you’re going to see child care providers left with impossible choices: raise prices for families already struggling to afford care, cut back on pay for early educators who already live on the brink of poverty, or close their doors altogether. When we don’t invest in care, there are no good choices.”

Early childhood educators — an almost entirely female group that is so severely underpaid they often, ironically, cannot afford to pay for child care themselves — were among those counted as essential workers in West Virginia. Many providers across the state saw former teachers who had left the workforce return under the rule change.

“It really did open up the doors,” says Trippett, owner of Cubby’s Child Care Center, the largest in the state. “I had several people with degrees in early childhood come back to work.”

Using federal relief funds, the state was also able to provide subsidies to child care providers based on the number of children enrolled in their programs, rather than the number who showed up each day. It may sound like a subtle distinction, but in practice, attendance-based reimbursements can be the difference between surviving and sinking in this business, providers say.

Read the full article about child care program closures by Emily Tate Sullivan at The19th.