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Low Pa. child care demand hints at harsh realities

Plus, Pa. public pensions dump their Russian investments.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 7, 2022
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Plummeting demand, financial relief, Russian divestment, derailment verdict, pandemic tests, conflict concern, and The Wonders. It's Monday.
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Enrollment in a program that helps Pennsylvania families find affordable child care has fallen to a record low during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting low-income parents, and particularly women, continue to face a difficult choice between earning a paycheck and caring for their children.

Spotlight PA and WESA report enrollment in the state's Child Care Works program has fallen from about 114,000 in March 2020 to less than 89,000 in January 2022, according to the Wolf administration. That's a 22% drop. A waitlist that stretched into the thousands before COVID is down to zero.

No one knows exactly what's behind the drop, but Tracey Campanini, of the state's Office of Child Development and Early Learning, said staffing shortages at child care centers and the rise of remote work could be factors.

During the pandemic, state officials pumped hundreds of millions of federal relief dollars into the program, but they've resisted calls to spend millions more advertising it, saying doing so wasn't necessary or cost-effective. 

THE CONTEXT: Gioia Maynor, a single mom who lives outside Pittsburgh, says the program lowered her child care costs by hundreds of dollars a month and that she couldn't hold down her current job without it.

But the program's requirement that participating parents work at least 20 hours a week or meet similar requirements if they are in school or a training program is an added barrier for others in need of the service. 

Jordan Klingensmith said her family can't afford full-price child care, but her boyfriend also can't start a job without having child care lined up first.

Peter Zurflieh, an attorney with the Community Justice Project, a statewide legal aid group, said that dilemma feeds a dangerous cycle of poverty.

"I bumped over, the other one of us could've bumped over and ran against Cartwright and it would've been all hands on deck to defeat Cartwright."

—U.S. Rep. Fred Keller (R., Pa.) referring to U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser (R., Pa.) who has upset some in his own party by declining to run in a new district
A golf course at Nemacolin Resort, as painted by @lindatorbert1Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
AID OPENING: Gov. Tom Wolf wants to spend some $1.7 billion in unspent federal aid money on immediate relief for households and businesses, including one-time payments of up to $2,000 to qualifying individuals and families. And while Republicans have resisted tapping into the unspent aid, the Morning Call reports a top Senate Republican signals Wolf's proposal may not be entirely out of the question.

SOLD OFF: Pennsylvania's massive pension fund for public school employees will sell off between $270 million and $300 million in assets out of Russia and Belarus, calling any investment in the countries "an unacceptable risk" amid their invasion of Ukraine. Capital-Star reports a separate retirement fund for state employees will dump $20 million in Russian stocks and $1.68 million in private equity investments.

'NOT GUILTY': An Amtrak engineer criminally charged for his role in a 2015 train derailment that killed 8 people near Philadelphia was found not guilty on all counts by a jury last week. WHYY reports Brandon Bostian accelerated the train to more than twice the speed limit before the crash but insisted it was a mistake caused by a distraction, not criminality. It remains one of the deadliest derailments in U.S. history.

FALLING SCORES: Last year's Pennsylvania standardized testing scores show sharp declines in most categories, but state officials say pandemic conditions distorted the numbers. PennLive reports the percentages of students scoring as proficient or advanced on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Keystone Exams went down in every grade level and in every subject except one: biology. 

LEGAL EXPOSURE: The judge who is expected to preside over a criminal case involving charges of extreme water pollution by the state's biggest oil and gas driller serves with an executive from the company on a foundation board that has also received millions of dollars from the energy giant. Susquehanna County Judge Jason Legg's Cabot Oil ties have now caught the attention of prosecutors.
MAROONED IN PHILLY: The Inquirer reports on seven Ukrainian men who have been stuck on a merchant vessel in South Philly, without pay, for months. They are stuck in legal limbo in the U.S., unable to get home, and watching from afar as their country and families go to war.

PIVOT LOOP: TribLIVE reports the Virgin Hyperloop has laid off 100 employees and is shifting its focus from passenger to freight service. The project, long derided by critics as a distraction from existing public transit needs, had touted travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago in under an hour.

CITY CAMEO: It's been 25 years since Tom Hanks wrote and directed That Thing You Do, a film about a band from Erie that hits it big. The Ringer has a charming oral history of the equally charming film. And, yes, the nod is still being celebrated in Erie all these years later.

TURNAROUND: Hours after announcing a plan to check and rank the break-in worthiness of cars parked in recreational areas, Allegheny County police have abandoned the idea for unclear reasons. A county councilor had warned that the program risked serious constitutional violations.

COMMUTER SERVICE: Leaders in Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties will each hold public hearings next month on the creation of a joint rail authority as they eye a return of Reading-to-Philly commuter service.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

*This week's theme: Temperature
Friday's answer: Unstoppable (was "the most expensive film ever filmed in Western Pennsylvania" at the time, according to TribLIVE)

Congrats to our weekly winner: Sandy S.

Congrats to our daily winners: Bonnie R., Michelle T., Vicki U., Don H., Barbara F., Elaine C., Doris T., Becky C., Bruce T., Jodi R., Judith D., Janet T., Karen W., Jeri D., Heidi G., Craig W., William S., Kyle C., Jude M., Diane P., Daniel M., Carol D., Kevin M., Joel S., George S., Fred O., James B., Laura B., Kimberly S., Dianne K., Bill S., Sandra P., Eddy Z., Elizabeth W., Kim C., and David W.
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