Child care costs in NC are about to get worse. Lawmakers should step in | Opinion

Before he became a state lawmaker, Rep. Frank Sossamon served for 36 years as a pastor. In some ways, he still does.

“I see things differently than a lot of elected officials,” said Sossamon, a Republican, who is in his first term representing Vance County and part of Granville County. “I say I’m pastoring to the district.”

Now Sossamon is asking his constituents and his fellow lawmakers to answer a New Testament imperative – take care of the little children. He’s calling together his district’s churches, businesses and parents for two forums focused on an acute child care shortage that is about to get much worse.

“North Carolina is known as a child care desert,” he said. “In Vance County, a parent has to get on a waiting list. It’s like that across the state.”

Sossamon is urging local churches and businesses to open child care centers to meet the need. But access to child care across the state is about to go in the opposite direction.

A temporary increase in child care funding made possible by the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act will expire in June. Meanwhile, child care centers have seen inflation and a worker shortage drive up their primary cost – labor.

Janet Singerman, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Child Care Resources Inc., said a recent survey by the North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council provided a grim forecast for child care providers.

“The respondents told us that three out of 10 think they will be closing unless money is found to replace the stabilization grants,” she said. “That’s pretty sobering.”

Those closings would eliminate 91,660 day care slots, the survey said

Of the centers that expect to remain open, nearly 60 percent said the loss of federal funds will cause them to raise tuition and other fees, while cutting back on employee hours and services, such as food and transportation.

Those changes would be bad for children and parents, but will also hurt businesses and the economy. Parents who can’t find affordable child care can’t work. That will cut workforce participation at a time when workers are already in short supply.

“We’re hoping the federal government will act, the state government will act,” Singerman said.

Action by Congress is unlikely given the gridlock in the House, but the state could help. Last session, the legislature considered but failed to pass a $300 million allocation to help child care providers. Singerman hopes they’ll reconsider in the short session that starts later this month. “That’s the biggest priority for all who are invested in child care,” she said.

It’s a scandal that child care is so underfunded in North Carolina and much of the nation. Good programs expand the workforce and nurture children during their crucial early years of development.

New Mexico, Vermont and Kentucky recently moved to make child care free or much more affordable and accessible. In most European countries, the government picks up a large share of the cost.

But in North Carolina, a child care spot is hard to find and afford. Those parents who do find one pay a stiff price. Singerman said the average annual charge for an infant or toddler is $11,440, $10,400 for preschool children and $7,800 for school-age children. If federal funding reverts to pre-pandemic levels, each charge is expected to increase by more than $1,000.

As costs and needs have risen, North Carolina’s funding for child care has remained flat for more than a decade. That should stop this session. The care and development of young children – and easing the financial burden of that care on parents – need to become legislative priorities.

Sossamon, a member of the House’s K-12 education committee, is hopeful. “What I’m hearing from a lot of the members is that they are supportive of more support for child care,” he said.

But the pastor-turned-lawmaker is also appealing to a higher authority. He said, “I’m praying to the Lord – ‘We’re in this mess, can you help us get out of it?’ ”

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@