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Opinion: Informal caregivers are critical to Colorado’s early-childhood care and education system

Also known as Family, Friend and Neighbor care, informal caregivers are often used where other care is not affordable, not accessible and doesn’t meet the needs of non-traditional work hours.

It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and one thing has been increasingly clear, both at the national and state level: Our economic recovery largely hinges on access to quality early care and education. 

From a business perspective, it allows parents to return to work and businesses to reopen properly; from an early learning perspective, children get a strong start in life.

Ryan Beiser and Christine Benero

To better understand the extent of the pandemic’s impact on the education of young children on a national scale, the PNC Foundation provided funding for a study from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The findings, while not surprising, were concerning.

The study, led by early childhood education public policy expert Steve Barnett, found that preschool enrollment rates were down nearly 25% across the nation from pre-pandemic levels, with in-person education down even more. There was also a sharp decline in parent at-home support for learning through book reading and other learning activities. Parents also reported unusually high rates of mental health problems for their young children relating to social and emotional development. 

In Colorado, the early-childhood enrollment rate was down even more during the pandemic, at 39% as of summer 2020, according to Early Milestones Colorado.

A safe and nurturing environment for young children to learn and grow isn’t a luxury; it is essential in supporting the workforce of today and tomorrow. Colorado voters, business leaders and government agencies recognize this fact, as evidenced by robust investments and public policy measures to bring stability to, and eventually grow, this vital sector. 

As we celebrate historic moments like the overwhelming bipartisan support of Proposition EE on last year’s Colorado ballot — raising taxes on nicotine products, ultimately to boost preschool funding — as well as recent state and federal public relief funding exceeding $200 million to stabilize and expand the licensed childcare sector, we must also acknowledge the importance of informal caregivers. 

Also known as Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) care, informal caregivers are often utilized where other care is not affordable, not accessible and doesn’t meet the needs of non-traditional work hours. FFN providers are typically grandparents, trusted family friends or neighbors.

When you consider over half of Colorado children under age 6 are cared for in an informal setting, it is clear FFN care needs to be part of the dialogue on the future of our state’s early childhood system, as well as the workforce pipeline.

A recent study conducted by Mile High United Way – in partnership with the Butler Institute for Families at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work and Early Milestones Colorado – highlighted the stark inequities and financial barriers faced by FFN providers, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

The study found that:

  • Overall, 58% of FFN providers surveyed indicated their household income has decreased since COVID-19 arrives; this decrease is more acute for Hispanic or Latina providers, with 73% reporting a decrease in household income compared to 33% of respondents who identified as white.
  • 35% of respondents received no money for providing care; 58% of respondents received no money or less than $100/week for providing care.

Moreover, survey findings showed that few FFN providers have access to the types of basic resources that not only support their caregiving but also their general living needs:

  • Only 20% of survey respondents have access to help with purchasing food.
  • Only 19% of survey respondents have access to medical, cash, or childcare assistance.
  • Only 13% of survey respondents have access to help paying rent or mortgage.

Now is the time to reimagine opportunities for all caregivers, while ensuring all children have access to safe, enriching learning environments.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As vaccines become more widely available and we eagerly anticipate returning to a form of normalcy, we need to amplify support and focus on the critical area of access to FFN care as part of the childcare and workforce landscape. For the workforce to return to work, we need to ensure families have the access and support they need and invest in care for all children.

It is important we acknowledge all caregivers who play a vital role in supporting children’s school readiness and ensuring parents can contribute to our state’s economy.  Colorado’s youngest learners need us now more than ever.

Click here to learn more about the issue and how to get involved with Mile High United Way.


Ryan Beiser, Colorado regional president of PNC Bank, is a Mile High United Way trustee. Christine Benero is Mile High United Way’s president and CEO.


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