On the surface, nothing has changed since September at EJ’s Kids Klub in Williston: About 100 families still drop kids off on weekday mornings, and it’s still noisy when administrator Laurel Morin picks up the phone at lunchtime. However, Morin says, clients who used to pay for childcare on a monthly basis are now paying week-to-week, and others are caring for their own kids part time to save money.
“Childcare is a necessity,” Morin adds. “But people are only able to stretch themselves so far.”
At the Greater Burlington YMCA , Marsha Faryniarz usually hears from one family per week that can’t afford the $375 weekly cost of enrolling two kids in daycare. Last week, Faryniarz heard from five. And the calls didn’t come from single moms on welfare; they came from working couples making as much as $60,000 who pay for childcare on credit.
“I have many families calling who say, ‘[We] can’t afford the care anymore,’” explains Faryniarz, the YMCA’s vice president for child and youth services. “It’s happening more and more as people are losing their jobs and not getting their bonuses.”
Such comments appear to reflect countywide trends. According to local providers and childcare advocates, infant and toddler enrollments in licensed programs are dropping, and more working parents are riding out the recession by opting for informal childcare arrangements.
Elizabeth Meyer, executive director of the Williston-based nonprofit Child Care Resource , is concerned about the recent shift to informal childcare for a few reasons. For one, she says, it can be dangerous when non-licensed professionals care for children. Moreover, she adds, by turning away from licensed providers, parents could destabilize an already volatile childcare market. According to her figures, Chittenden County lost 32 of 362 childcare providers between April and December.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle where nobody really wins, and children are the ultimate losers,” Meyer says.
Advocates and state administrators say recent trends are only the latest expression of a chronic problem. Vermont childcare subsidies are based on 1999 federal poverty guidelines, as opposed to 2008 ones, and the difference nine years makes is about $18 million, according to Rep. Michael Fisher (D-Lincoln). Some middle-class families in Vermont could be getting more help than they do.
Earlier this year, Fisher sponsored H.603, a bill that would have brought the subsidy guidelines up to 2008 levels, but it died in committee. On Monday, the Douglas administration proposed  that a scheduled update from 1999 to 2000 subsidy levels — valued at $852,000 — be “delayed.”
Why does change on this issue take so long? Fisher says it’s partly a “societal” thing, meaning Americans are slowly coming to recognize how essential proper childcare is to promoting healthy childhood development. Another possible factor, Fisher suggests, is that Vermont’s childcare community hasn’t pushed policymakers through coordinated “activism.”
Marsha Faryniarz at the YMCA admits the state’s provider community could be more active. On the other hand, she says, providers are overworked and underpaid, and employers who benefit from childcare should also be speaking out. “There are people who could be working, but they can’t, because they can’t afford childcare,” Faryniarz insists. “It’s not just an issue for families with children; it’s an issue for the state of Vermont.”
According to a 2002 report  commissioned by the state’s Agency of Human Services , every $1 million spent on childcare creates 35 local jobs, and roughly 37,000 working parents who rely on childcare services are employed by 11,000 Vermont businesses.
Vermont Department for Children and Families Commissioner Steve Dale agrees with advocates that Vermont’s childcare subsidy guidelines are woefully outdated, and that childcare is a vital component of the local economy. But given the current budget crunch in Montpelier, Dale doubts Montpelier politicos will reassess subsidy guidelines until the current recession lifts.
“We’ve gone a number of years without those fundamental holes being fixed,” he notes. “Unfortunately, this is the darkest time to solve those problems.”