Families in North Carolina are stressed. They are tired. They are worried about their children.
A year and a half of the pandemic has been a struggle for all of us, but especially for families with young children. Concerns about basic needs – staying healthy, keeping jobs and paying the bills – are compounded by fears of finding daycare, juggling work and young children at home, and meeting developmental and social needs children.
Smart Start, North Carolina’s comprehensive early years system spanning all counties, has supported children, families and child care providers through the debilitating pandemic, and we have seen and felt the effects of first hand.
According to the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 50% of parents who had not returned to the workforce by October 2020 cited child custody as their reason. A new survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows that 82% of daycares in North Carolina are experiencing a staffing shortage, making it difficult to keep the doors open with rising costs and shrinking enrollments. Research shows the pandemic has had an impact on children’s development, with pediatricians noting delays in speech and language, social skills and even reduced IQ.
Our youngest children, those from birth to 5 years old, are in the most important developmental period of their lives. Their brains are developing at a rapid rate, paving the way for future success in school, work and life. They can’t wait.
Families are navigating uncharted waters and working overtime to stay afloat, with less support available from extended family than before the pandemic. They can’t wait.
Child care professionals try to make ends meet, stay healthy and provide high quality care for families in order to keep our economy strong. They can’t wait.
Federal relief dollars to North Carolina are a lifeline. Higher than expected state revenues allow flexibility in our budget for necessary supports for children and families. Passing a budget that invests in our youngest children must be a priority for all leaders of our state.
The Statewide Smart Start Network appreciates and commends Governor Cooper and General Assembly leaders for their continued confidence in Smart Start to help young children and families overcome the challenges of the pandemic. Governor Cooper has included recurring funding for Smart Start in his budget proposal, and the Senate and House have included funding in their budgets for Smart Start to strengthen early education, improve children’s health, support families and develop early literacy.
Representative Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Senator Ralph Hise, R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey, were instrumental in advancing these priorities in the General Assembly. Many other House and Senate lawmakers have also stood up for children and families by supporting Smart Start this session. Recurring funds for Smart Start represent a commitment to children and families in every community across the state.
There are other bright spots in the Senate and House budgets for young children and families, including funding for child care grants for families who work on the wait list, additional investments in NC Pre-K and start-up funds for child care. The Senate extended Medicaid coverage for postpartum moms, and the House included Child Care program funding WAGE $ to provide salary supplements to child care professionals. We still hope that lawmakers will increase and modernize subsidy rates to help child care providers improve quality and availability for families. These are priorities we’ve been working on with our partners across the state, including Think Babies NC.
There is a lot at stake for young children and families in North Carolina. With the conference budget process underway, we encourage our policymakers to work together and across parties to adopt a state budget that meets the needs of families and moves our state forward. The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities to support children and families. We cannot miss this moment.
Children and families cannot wait.