NICK REYNOLDS/STAFF Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, listens during the inaugural meeting of the Special Joint Committee to Study Childcare in Columbia on Nov. 30. Erickson, who runs a child care facility, said she intends to find methods to lower costs and improve accessibility for child care facilities across South Carolina.
Business leaders warn that affordable child care shortage threat to economy

COLUMBIA — South Carolina business leaders claim the state’s lack of affordable child care could be costing the state as much as $1.4 billion in lost productivity every year, saying the lack of options threatens to stymie the state’s current economic boom if left unaddressed.

According to a Nov. 30 report commissioned by the Council for a Strong America and Ready Nation on behalf of state business leaders, South Carolina’s current child care system falls well short of the needs of Palmetto State employers and their workers, many of whom do not have access to child care.

Per the report, 42 percent of South Carolinians live within a so-called child care “desert,” where there are more than three children under age 5 for each licensed child care slot.

And if parents do have access, it’s largely unaffordable, with the average yearly cost for a typical child care center costing the typical family approximately $9,048 per year.

That total is the 10th-highest burden in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those problems impact not just families, but the state’s economy as well: out of more than 800 parents surveyed across the country, many reported decreased effort and productivity at work or employment disruptions. An additional one-quarter of those surveyed reported quitting or even losing their jobs due to issues finding child care.

“Workforce development is the No. 1 challenge we face,” Bob Morgan, president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, told The Post and Courier.

“We have 78,000 jobs going unfilled, our labor force participation rate is 57 percent versus a national average of 63 percent,” he added. +And child care — the cost, the availability and the quality — is one of the key barriers to solving that.”

South Carolina does have measures aimed to address the problem. The state’s Child Care Scholarship program can provide hundreds of dollars in assistance to cover child care for families earning under 85 percent of the poverty line.

The state also has the ABC Quality Rating and Improvement System, a voluntary program that allows enrolled providers a greater share of state scholarship funding if they submit themselves to higher regulatory requirements. For employers, the state offers up to a $100,000 tax credit for the startup costs of an on-site child care facility, which DSS officials credit to automaker Volvo’s recent decision to give a $3,000 child care stipend for its employees with children.

The measures have helped somewhat. Over the last decade, the number of child care centers in the state have risen to 2,319, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Social Services.

But it’s still not enough. Fewer than half of the state’s eligible child care centers currently participate in the state’s ABC Quality program, though the total number has increased by 497 providers since March 2020.

And while the scholarship program exists, the amount of money is limited, with DSS planning to request $10 million from the South Carolina General Assembly to fund the program this coming session. And it’s still not enough to cover the need that’s likely out there.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a new influx of federal funding allowed parents earning between 85 percent and 300 percent of the poverty level to access the state’s child care scholarship program. Though children previously accepted into the scholarship program during COVID will be allowed to remain, federal funds are no longer there, said Connelly- Anne Ragley, DSS chief external affairs officer, meaning an estimated 2,800 children across the state who once may have qualified no longer will.

Some proposals have already been issued to address the state’s child care problem. On Nov. 30, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, pre-filed legislation reducing some of the educational and training requirements for caregivers in child care centers, which previously precluded people from DSS officials to school teachers from working in child care facilities.

Nov. 30 also marked the first-ever meeting of the Special Joint Committee to Study Childcare, a six-member panel that is tasked with studying the state’s child care system and then proposing reforms to improve it, either through regulatory changes or through changes to statute.

While the committee’s work formally commences later this winter, one of its co-chairs, child care provider and state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said they will likely seek out reforms she sees as “low-hanging fruit” during the coming legislative session. Early topics, she said, will likely range from reducing the licensing requirements for child care facilities and staff to loosening stipulations on the physical requirements for at-home or religious facilities.

Contact Nick Reynolds at 803-919-0578. Follow him on X (formerly known as Twitter) @IAmNick Reynolds.