Working people with children will tell you that child care is their biggest day-to-day challenge. The logistics are maddening and the cost is overwhelming. The stakes are no less than the well-being of the next generation.
Yet, if you talk to child care providers, they’ll tell you the same thing. Frustrating logistics and high costs drives big centers and independent providers alike out of business.
Three separate but related issues dominate the child care discussion: access, cost, and quality.
Let’s start with access. The way it is now, an ovulating woman must apply for day care before winking at her husband. The waiting list for infants at day care centers often literally sprawls longer than their gestation period.
This factors into people’s lives in many unseen ways. From where people live, to how many children they have, to the careers they’ll even be able to consider, access to day care sets the tone for working families. The pressure to find good day care squeezes two-parent families and hangs like steel chains on single parents.
Next, let’s talk about cost. As we’ve established finding day care is hard, but paying for it is harder. The average annual cost for infant care in Minnesota is about $16,000, and $12,000 for a 4-year-old. But there are reasons for that.
The Center for Rural Policy and Development has been researching the child care crisis in Greater Minnesota. They conducted a survey of providers last year. The costs born by parents typically do not lead to significant profits by the providers.
For important reasons the child care industry is heavily regulated to ensure child safety and proper staffing. There are limits to the number of infants, toddlers or pre-schoolers that one person can care for. Smaller children require more hands-on care, which makes them more expensive for a day care center to watch.
In addition, day care providers of all ages require vast amounts of training. In some cases employers pay for providers to attend training. However, in several cases those providers must take their own time to attend the training, even paying for it themselves.
These regulations that protect children cost money that must come from somewhere. Right now, it mostly comes from parents, with limited funding by nonprofits and government programs to fill gaps.
This leads to the third problem — the way this system affects quality. Child care workers and teachers are among the lowest paid professional workers in the country, certainly the lowest paid in the education field. Aides make less than fast-food workers, and so do many teachers — many of whom have four-year degrees.
Marnie Werner of the Center for Rural Policy and Development said that independent providers only report making about $8.50 an hour after expenses.
This makes it very hard for the most experienced, talented providers to stay in the business long term. It takes a seriously committed person to remain in childcare under these working conditions. More often we just see lots of turnover.
If we accept that more young working families are what’s needed in our aging Iron Range communities, then our politics and policy need to address the realities those families face.
That means we must expand access to child care, incentivizing the creation of new child care centers and small businesses. We must also address cost, making it practical for working people to keep working. Finally, built into the entire debate, we must ensure quality of care and quality of life for child care teachers and workers by paying them a fair wage.
This will mean government investment in helping day care providers meet costly regulations, and eliminating unnecessary regulations. This could also involve private initiative and enterprise, including new, innovative ideas. For instance, the Institute for Family Studies has analyzed efforts to combine day care for children with day care for seniors. This would be a logical thing to explore here on the Iron Range.
Further, we could make it easier and more affordable for working parents to raise their own children with substantial tax credits or by paying stipends to stay-at-home parents the way they do in Scandinavian countries.
No one idea is likely enough, but a combination of these efforts would solve the problem. Examples exist all over the world. But Minnesota, or even a small town, can make its own way.
One common refrain is that child care wouldn’t be necessary if the family dynamic was the same as it was in the 1950s. But that’s not a practical solution in 2019. Women seek equality in the workplace. Single parent families are common, and idle condemnation won’t change that. Furthermore, the economy changed. A single income doesn’t pay as much relative to cost of living, nor are most jobs secure enough to last 40 years.
This is our world. We must live in it. The children need care, and our community will benefit from good ideas put into action.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).