Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz announces a nine-bill, $350 million legislative package on April 5, 2022, at the Statehouse in Trenton. The legislation is intended to improve and expand day care for babies and toddlers in New Jersey. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Several state lawmakers announced a $350 million, nine-bill legislative package Tuesday supporters say would make day care more affordable in a state where more than 35,000 babies and toddlers live with low-income, working families without access to child care.
The bills aim to eliminate “day care deserts,” cover child care costs for more low-income families, support providers, and create incentives for employers to cover workers’ child care costs.
The legislation comes one month after Gov. Phil Murphy released a $48.9 billion budget plan that includes expanded funding to move New Jersey closer to its goal of universal preschool — something championed by a prime sponsor of the new package of bills, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).
But Tuesday, Ruiz said children need support far earlier than preschool to be successful in life.
“We have to rewind, catch children much earlier, make sure that families in the state of New Jersey have access to high-quality, affordable child care and make sure that we recognize that the academic outcomes for children really start in the womb,” Ruiz said.
The legislation is the first major policy initiative for Ruiz since she took over the Senate’s second most powerful position in January. Sens. Nilsa Cruz-Pérez (D-Camden), Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), and Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) also are prime sponsors.
Learning doesn't start at age 3. It doesn't start with preschool. It starts at birth.
– Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey
Ruiz acknowledged $350 million might seem like a big request, with lawmakers now neck-deep in negotiations over Murphy’s budget proposal. But she pointed to the billions not yet spent in federal American Rescue Plan relief allocated to New Jersey, as well as the state’s recent focus on improving infant and maternal health, a crusade First Lady Tammy Murphy has taken up in her Nurture New Jersey initiative.
Investing in child care would immediately help the economy by enabling more parents to return to the workforce at a time when a pandemic-created labor shortage persists, Ruiz said.
A strong start in childhood improves lifelong outcomes — and that can save money in the long run, she said. Supporting children in underserved communities also can help erase achievement gaps later in life, she added.
“The key is to start the conversation,” Ruiz said. “There’s a lot of money at stake here. And I think there has to be an all-inclusive discussion with both levels of the legislative branch.”
Ruiz, Cunningham, and Cruz-Pérez announced the legislation surrounded by a crowd of child care advocates and providers, who applauded the initiative.
“Learning doesn’t start at age three. It doesn’t start with preschool. It starts at birth,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Our economy can’t survive without people being able to work, and parents can’t work without child care.”
Shirnet Fray Palmer runs a 24-hour day care called We Care 4 All in Paterson.
“I can tell you firsthand, it is not easy,” Fray said. “So whatever help that we can get, we appreciate it.”
Ferlanda Nixon, chief of policy and external affairs at the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said the proposed legislation would curb absenteeism, increase productivity, and make New Jersey more economically competitive.
The bills would:
- Establish the Department of Early Childhood to develop and coordinate the care and education of children from birth to age 5
- Allocate $22 million to cover child care costs for 1,000 additional babies and toddlers, primarily in child care deserts and low-income communities and at child care centers partnered with high-quality preschools
- Require new preschool programs or child care expansions to use private providers (instead of public providers such as schools) for at least half of their seats
- Provide tax incentives to employers who either provide child care, reimburse parents for child care expenses, or contract with private providers to tend to employees’ children
- Provide a tax credit for child care workers who work full time for the same provider for a continuous six-month period, as a way to retain workers
- Extend child care subsidies to families earning up to 300% of the federal poverty line, up from the current 250% (for a family of four, 300% of the federal poverty line is $79,500)
- Require the state Department of Human Services to reimburse day care providers that participate in Grow NJ Kids, a state-sponsored effort to assess and improve the quality of child care
- Establish the first full week of April as the “Week of the Young Child” in New Jersey
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