Child care providers like Lindsey Smalley are reeling from decisions by the Idaho Legislature to end federal grant funds earlier than expected.
Smalley owns TenderCare Children’s Center in Lewiston and has worked in the industry for 15 years. She purchased the care center seven years ago. It is part of the Idaho Child Care Program that serves children with disabilities and provides child care assistance for working families.
When the pandemic hit, TenderCare was trying to stay open to help serve families. Idaho gave child care providers, like day cares, grants to help them stay open through Idaho’s phases in the pandemic. Initially, Smalley used the funds to buy COVID-19-related supplies like cleaning materials and personal protection equipment. Later, some of the grants were used to keep costs down for families or to increase pay for workers.
Smalley budgeted for the changes, like the increase in grant money, and was preparing for the grant funds to end.
It came sooner than expected.
The payments were supposed to end in June, but could have been extended to September. Smalley was hoping they would be extended but planned on the payments to end in a few months. What she didn’t anticipate was that the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance Appropriations Committee would vote to essentially end the federal grant funds immediately. March is her last month of payments.
The committee voted to decline two separate federal grant programs at the end of February. The committee declined a grant that included $36 million in federal funds for the Idaho Child Care Program that supported child care providers by offsetting costs for low-income families. Another was the Federal American Rescue Plan that served school-aged children from 5 to 13 years old.
None of the members on the committee are from District 6 or 7 that represent Lewiston. The committee is led by Sen. C. Scott Grow, of Eagle, and Rep. Wendy Horman, of Idaho Falls.
Not only is Smalley facing the loss of the grant funds but the cost of food, paper products, toys, bed sheets and other supplies needed to run a day care have also increased. She had been using the grant funds to keep the cost down for families in the current high-inflation economy. She told families last fall that she wasn’t going to increase the cost for child care because the grant money was available.
“Keeping the increase down helps families because the cost of care is so expensive and some families don’t qualify for state programs that pay for care,” Smalley said.
Smalley was emailing legislative members asking them to extend the money to September to give her and the families she serves more time to adjust to the cost without the grants.
She thought the worst-case scenario would be the funds getting cut off completely.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Even though Smalley knew those changes would be coming and she would have to adjust the cost for families and the wages of her employees, she thought she had three or four months to plan her budget to adjust to the changes. Now she has a couple of weeks.
Smalley is struggling to rationalize why the legislature would pull the funds. She said it’s like the rug was pulled out from under her business.
“It feels like what we do isn’t important and feels like our contribution to what keeps our state running — nobody cares,” she said. “I can’t even explain the feeling I had. … It was like being stabbed in the back without anybody even asking us how.”
Smalley said no one from the Legislature reached out to her or others in the industry to ask about how the decision would affect child care services.
Smalley said it’s frustrating and sad because it feels like representatives in the Legislature don’t see the value of providing child care to working families.
The funds also didn’t come from the state budget because they were federal grants.
“There was no downside to doing it,” Smalley said. “There’s nothing that anybody is losing or having to pay for.”
While there were some limits on what the funds could be used for, Smalley said the care center was careful to research the restrictions and if there were any strings attached. The fact that the funds weren’t granted again feels like another layer of the state not valuing the work people like Smalley and her staff are doing.
“We’ve all put a lot of effort and energy in a system and they don’t care about us,” she said.
TenderCare serves 100-110 kids every day, including some siblings, which means about 75-80 families. Those families are contributing to the local economy by being employed and with their paycheck.
“When you eliminate families, and oftentimes women, from the workforce, that’s a huge, huge impact,” she said.
Smalley was hoping to have more time so she wouldn’t have to increase prices at a time when families are already facing high inflation and costs. She was grateful for the grant funds and maintained a low cost for families and increased pay for her employees.
Without the extra time to figure out how to adjust the budget, Smalley met with her staff to figure out what they would need to cover the bare minimum while also not increasing rates too high for families. She also sent letters to inform families of the situation and why the rates started changing.
“Now we’re kind of just figuring out piece by piece as we go,” Smalley said.
The harder part is figuring out what to do about her staff’s wages. Smalley had a few weeks to tell her staff that their paychecks would be cut, many of whom had been relying on receiving those funds through June.
For a year and a half, the grant money has been going to her employees once a month, about $300 a month apiece. Those funds will also be cut off at the end of this month.
The wage enhancement from the funding helped Smalley retain staff in a low-paying industry.
“Nobody works in child care because you make a ton of money in it. They continue to do it because they love children and love families,” Smalley said. “Nobody’s out there buying a yacht.”
Smalley also faces competition from day cares in Clarkston that have more support from the state and can offer higher pay. Because Washington offers more support for child care facilities, they have become part of the state’s infrastructure and can offer more services to families.
While the families she serves and the staff have been supportive, Smalley was hoping for a smoother transition when the funding was no longer available.
“We all work because we have to provide for our families, whether we love our job or not,” she said.
There’s not much Smalley and child care providers like her can do about the decision by the Legislature. While Smalley has talked to an advocacy group, the main action they did was a protest at the Capitol in Boise.
“Everyone’s frustrated,” Smalley said. “We’re all a little bit shocked.”
Brewster may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2297.