Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Santa Barbara County’s private, nonsubsidized childcare industry will bleed to death without $2 million of emergency assistance, the county supervisors were told Tuesday, and with it will wither any chances for the county’s overall economic recovery.

It was a stark message, but two supervisors had their doubts. The need, all supervisors agreed, was there, but Supervisor Bob Nelson expressed concerns about the squishiness of the plan. Likewise, Supervisor Das Williams expressed concern that the proposal — pitched by a coalition of childcare advocates buttressed by First Five and the Santa Barbara Foundation — would not fill any currently unmet needs or create any new childcare slots. 

The answer, from Michelle Robertson with First Five, was starker still. “We can’t expand the number of slots if the program doesn’t exist,” she stated. Childcare operations that pre-COVID were licensed to handle 20 kids up to 5 years old are now only permitted 10-12, she added, because of social distancing and other safety mandates. “It’s about stopping the bleeding,” she said. 

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Private providers not eligible for government subsidies, the supervisors were warned, were eligible for only a small fraction — just one-tenth — of the state and federal aid available during the peak of the COVID crisis as subsidy-eligible provides. Supervisor Gregg Hart likened the economic pinch experienced by private care providers to middle-income families who earn too much to be eligible for subsidized housing. 

In making their case to the supervisors — who soon will have to decide how to slice up $43 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds they’re eligible for — childcare advocates stressed how urgently the county’s economic recovery hinged on the availability of reliable childcare. Women, they were told, make up 80 percent of the workers who’ve left the workforce and not returned. Without a stabilized childcare market, many won’t come back, and the worker shortage afflicting so many employers will not improve. 

Pedro Paz with the Santa Barbara Foundation acknowledged it was hard to determine which operations could be saved with help and which ones couldn’t. Discerning the difference, he stated, was part science and part art.

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