Study: NJ child care needs more workers as youth population booms
Demand is up, supply is down.
That's never a good scenario for consumers. And according to a report newly released out of Rutgers University, that's the big-picture look at New Jersey's child care landscape, as child care centers struggle to hire and keep qualified workers, and many counties brace for a boom in their population of young children over the next several years.
Child care capacity across the Garden State has failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels, finds the report, which was supported by the New Jersey State Policy Lab. As of 2021, home- and center-based child care had nearly 4,000 fewer spots open for children compared to 2019.
And the issue of fewer spots, many times, relates to not enough staff to handle more kids. Historically, wages in the child care sector have struggled to keep up with pay in other sectors such as retail.
"It's very hard to raise those wages, because then families can't afford to send their kids to child care," said Debra Lancaster, co-author of the report and executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers.
Compared to the first quarter of 2020, overall employment in New Jersey recovered by the third quarter of 2021, the report notes. Child care, though, had recovered just 84% of its pre-pandemic workforce.
After dipping significantly between 2019 and 2020, the number of center-based child care facilities recovered in 2021, according to the 100-page report. But the number of home-based providers continues to decrease.
"Home-based child care is typically more affordable and typically a lot more flexible for families," Lancaster said. "And it's often more attractive to parents who want to keep the care of their children close to home."
And the need for child care has increased over time. Over a 10-year period, New Jersey experienced a 10% jump in the share of children under 6 with all available parents in the workforce, according to the report.
The rate was as high as nearly 78% in Gloucester County in 2020, and above 76% in Atlantic and Hunterdon counties.
"Excess demand" for child care is expected to increase over the next 10 years, the report says.
In Ocean County, for example, estimates suggest that there was excess demand for center-based care of at least 3,610 children under age 6. That gap is expected to grow through 2034. The Rutgers report cited similar scenarios in multiple counties.
Beyond improving wages — which would not only attract more people but also reduce burnout — researchers recommended a number of moves aimed at providing accessible, high-quality child care to more residents, including the removal of certain regulatory burdens so that more centers can open, and promotion of employer-sponsored child care.
"Child care should not be this challenging in a state like New Jersey," Lancaster said.
Dating back to a law signed in 2021, New Jersey is in the process of awarding $75 million in grants to child care facilities looking to make improvements. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority received more than 450 applications from child care centers for the initial funding pool of $24.5 million that was launched in November 2022.