N.J. child care centers took a hit during the pandemic. They now serve 4,700 fewer kids.


There are 142 fewer licensed child care centers operating in New Jersey since the coronavirus pandemic began, shrinking the pool of children served by 4,700, a top state official said Wednesday.

The economic fallout for the child care industry could have been much worse, Christine Beyer, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families told the state Assembly Budget Committee at a hearing in Trenton. The loss of 4,700 child care slots — going from 388,266 to 383,613 statewide — represents just a 1.2% decline, she said.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration was the only state to use CARES Act Coronavirus Relief funds to support child care centers throughout the shutdown, Beyer said. The state allocated $210 million in relief for child care centers in the first year of the pandemic, according to Murphy’s office.

“In the midst of the work we are doing around child care, New Jersey really has fared much better than some of our neighboring states in terms of child care center capacity,” Beyer told the committee.

Cecilia Zalkind, president of the research and policy nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said she doesn’t share the commissioner’s assessment about the child care industry’s resilience. There was a shortage of affordable options before the pandemic, and the state can’t afford to lose any openings, she said.

“Child care is in crisis,” Zalkind said after the hearing. “Child care has not recovered and parents and programs are suffering. Parents can’t find child care, especially for infants and toddlers, and programs have empty classrooms because they can’t find staff.”

The proposed state budget for the fiscal year that begins in July “needs to make a significant state investment to help parents afford care and help programs staff classrooms,” Zalkind said. “No recovery on any level — especially the state economy — is possible without child care and any loss in available care is significant.”

From March 2020 to April 2022, 663 licensed centers closed and 521 centers opened, resulting in a net loss of 142 but offsetting what could have been a more dramatic impact, Beyer said. There are 3,982 licensed child care centers in the state today, she said.

The state ordered most child care facilities closed in March through June 2020, followed by reduced classroom sizes for another year. Through December 2020, employment fell 6.8 percent among mothers in New Jersey, compared to 3.8 percent among fathers, according to a report by Ready Nation. Nearly one in five mothers of infants and toddlers left the workforce because of a lack of affordable and accessible child care, the report found.

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State Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, introduced a package of bills that would expand the income limits for people who qualify for subsidized child care, create an income tax credit for child care employees, and establish tax incentives for employers who provide on-site child care or reimburse parents for their child care expenses.

The initiatives could cost as much as $350 million, said Ruiz, who pledged to advocate for the legislation during the budget negotiations, which ends on June 30 when a state budget must be approved under the state’s constitution.

Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Atlantic, was one of several members of the budget committee who pressed Beyer for more information about what the state was doing to help the child care industry overcome its problems of filling vacant jobs. “What can DCF do to make things better?” he asked.

Beyer said the department has acted like a human resources office, advertising job postings on its social media account and then helping sort through the resumes that arrived in response. Child care center operators are encouraged to use pandemic relief funds to pay signing and retention bonus to help compete in a very competitive job market, she added.

The state is also committing $5 million to conduct research that would assess the state’s child care needs and study the work force, “identifying incentives and motivating factors for recruiting and retaining entrepreneurs and staff,” according to a budget analysis for the department.

Assemblywoman Aura Dunn, R-Morris, questioned the value of a study that will take time to complete when the state is in “dire need now.”

Beyer said the fact that 500 new child care centers opened during this difficult period is a good sign for the industry’s future. Meanwhile, the state will continue providing aid and assistance.

“The studies, you’re right, may take a little bit of time,” Beyer said. “But I think it’s important to understand what the challenges are going forward.”

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Susan K. Livio may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.

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