How to deal with Minnesota’s post-COVID childcare concerns

During the coronavirus pandemic, childcare was one of the most heavily affected industries. Fortunately, providers were partly helped by funds provided by the United States Congress. In Minnesota, most of the funds from the latest stimulus bill are yet to be spent.

When Congress approved the massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March, it earmarked $40 billion to help bail out the country’s struggling child care system. 

Minnesota, in turn, got more than half a billion dollars for its child care providers.

The influx of cash resulted in a tug-of-war over how to spend the money in Minnesota — and who should spend it. But after months of negotiations, lawmakers in St. Paul settled on a plan that will boost reimbursement rates in the primary subsidy for low-income families and increase pay for child care workers through monthly “stabilization grants” to providers across the state.

Despite the funds, however, concerns still remain about the viability of the Minnesota childcare industry after federal aid is over.

Still, as state agencies work to disburse the funds, some child care providers and advocates have mixed feelings — elated about the money they can now spend, but disappointed the state did not provide much of its own funding for the industry and apprehensive that a future without federal cash would leave the industry unstable.

Providers indeed faced a lot of difficulty during the pandemic; therefore, financial assistance was more than necessary. It would be a mistake, however, to continue to fix childcare by throwing money at the issue, as some legislators have already suggested. Subsidies rarely address the root cause of shortage, and high cost –– regulation –– and will not be a sustainable solution in the long run.

To see how regulation drives shortage and high cost, let us look at what happened during the pandemic when COVID-19 restrictions reduced the number of children providers could take care of.

When providers were limited to 10-person groups, they lost money, which forced some to close temporarily, others permanently. Some of the ones that stayed open raised tuition to cover increasing costs, and most providers stayed afloat due to government grants. Other providers also reported using high interest loans and personal savings to survive the pandemic.

Minnesota’s childcare regulations affect providers in the same way that COVID-19 related restrictions did. Low child-staff ratios, for example, restrict the number of kids providers can take care of, forcing providers to charge high tuition while paying providers low wages. Other requirements like teacher qualifications also raises costs. Additionally, restrictive licensing rules like training, space requirements, paper work may may also force some providers, especially family child care providers, out of the market.

It is important, therefore, that before the legislature commits to spending more money on childcare, they look into loosening and repealing regulations that make it costly for providers to operate, drive up costs for parents, and force providers out of the market. Any solution to the childcare crisis that does not involve regulatory reform is unlikely to address the issue.