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Perspective | North Carolina’s children and families can’t wait for a budget

North Carolina families are stressed. They are tired. They are worried for their children.

A year and a half of pandemic life has been a struggle for all of us, but especially for families with young children. Concerns about basic needs — staying healthy, keeping a job, and paying bills — are compounded by fears about finding child care, juggling work and young children at home, and meeting children’s developmental and social needs.

Smart Start, North Carolina’s comprehensive early childhood system covering every county, has supported children, families, and child care providers throughout the debilitating pandemic, and we have seen and felt the effects firsthand.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 50% of parents who had not returned to the workforce in October 2020 cited child care as a reason. A new survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows that 82% of child care centers in NC are experiencing a staffing shortage, making it difficult to keep the doors open with rising costs and reduced enrollment. Research shows that the pandemic has impacted 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, are in the most important developmental period of their lives. Their brains are developing at a rapid pace, setting the stage 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 are trying to make ends meet, stay healthy, and provide high-quality care for families to keep our economy strong. They can’t wait.

Federal relief dollars flowing to North Carolina represent a lifeline. Higher-than-expected state revenues allow some flexibility in our budget for needed supports for children and families. Passing a budget that invests in our youngest children must be a priority for all our state’s leaders.

The statewide Smart Start network appreciates and commends Governor Cooper and leaders in the General Assembly for their continued trust in Smart Start to help young children and families navigate the challenges presented by the pandemic. Governor Cooper included recurring funding for Smart Start in his budget proposal, and both the Senate and the House included funding in their budgets for Smart Start to strengthen early education, improve children’s health, support families, and build early literacy.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison,  McDowell,  Mitchell,  Polk,  Rutherford,  Yancey, have been instrumental in advancing those priorities in the General Assembly. Many other legislators in the House and Senate 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 of the state.

There are other bright spots in both the Senate and the House budgets for young children and families, including funding for child care subsidies for working families 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 funding for the Child Care WAGE$ program to provide salary supplements to child care professionals. We are still hopeful that lawmakers will increase and modernize subsidy rates to help child care providers improve quality and availability for families. These are priorities that we have worked on with our partners across the state, including Think Babies NC.

There’s a lot at stake for young children and families in North Carolina. With the conference budget process underway, we encourage our state policymakers to work together and across parties to pass a state budget that responds to families’ needs and moves our state forward. The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges but also unprecedented opportunities to support children and families. We can’t miss this moment.

Children and families can’t wait.

Amy Cubbage

Amy Cubbage is the president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC), leading Smart Start, North Carolina’s comprehensive early childhood system.