WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing problems within the child care sector, especially the high cost that makes it inaccessible for some parents, and the government must provide permanent support to both families and providers to resolve them, lawmakers and experts said Wednesday.

Speaking before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., emphasized that federal pandemic relief packages, like the American Rescue Plan, are only a temporary solution.

“Although pandemic-related relief programs have helped families and providers cope with the immediate effects of the coronavirus, sustained federal investment is still needed to aid recovery and address problems that existed before the pandemic,” said Clyburn, who chairs the subcommittee.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly upended child care arrangements for families across the country. In June 2020, two out of three working parents had changed their child care arrangements since March, and 60% said they expected a change within the following year, according to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March 2021, dedicates $39 billion to child care funding, including $24 billion for child care stabilization grants and $15 billion in discretionary funds. However, experts say that the child care industry’s pre-pandemic challenges remain.

“The cost of child care, particularly high-quality child care, prior to the pandemic, made working too expensive for some parents, and yet the child care market is still far from recovering to these inadequate levels of access and affordability,” Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, told the subcommittee.

The average price of child care in 2020 was $10,174 per year, a 5% increase from 2019, according to a recent report from Child Care Aware of America, a nonprofit organization advocating for more accessible child care.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Joe Biden addressed the rising cost of child care.

“My plan would cut the cost of child care in half for most families and help parents, including millions of women, who left the workforce during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford child care, to be able to get back to work,” Biden said.

Several experts pointed to the challenges that child care workers face, specifically their low wages. In 40 states, median child care worker wages fall below the living wage for a single adult in that state, according to a 2020 report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Our economy relies on workers who are parents, and so many parents cannot work without reliable child care, and child care cannot work effectively until its own workforce is secure,” said Lea J.E. Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Gina Forbes, an early childhood educator and parent from Brunswick, Maine, described her experience working as the director of a preschool at which keeping tuition costs low meant keeping wages low, as well.

“This lack of fair pay, inability to offer health and other benefits, and the high demands of the job is a recipe for teacher burnout, stress and sometimes turnover,” Forbes said.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., criticized House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the top Republican on the subcommittee, for focusing on what he called political motivations for lifting mask mandates across the country.

Other Republican committee members brought up similar concerns rather than discussing child care.

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