GUEST OPINION: Coalition works to find child care solutions

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part in a series of columns from the Brown County Community Foundation Chief Executive Officer Maddison Miller about the issues of affordable child care and how they can be addressed locally.

By MADDISON MILLER, guest columnist

In the early days of World War II, women entered the war effort in droves to replace male workers who had joined or were conscripted to military service.

They took clerical jobs, drove trucks, repaired planes, produced munitions and war supplies, while brightly singing the theme of Rosie the Riveter. But who was to take care of Rosie’s children? As the author G.G. Wetherill put it in 1943, “The hand that holds the pneumatic riveter cannot rock the cradle at the same time.” And so, Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1940, building over 3,000 federally subsidized Lanham Centers across our nation which served an estimated 600,000 children before the war ended, the Act terminated and funding ceased.

For those few years, our government operated a heavily subsidized child care program, demonstrating what happens when child care is viewed as a shared concern and responsibility.

Today, our nation faces a similar challenge and an incredible need. The “Great Resignation” is well underway, with women being forced to take a step back in their professional lives in order to meet their family obligations. During the pandemic, women have exited the labor force at twice the rate of men. About one-third of all mothers in the workforce have scaled back or left their jobs since March 2020.

We’re witnessing this labor shortage in our own community, as employers struggle to find people to work. The labor shortage is most severe in sectors like hospitality, retail, and healthcare – where women make up the majority of workers. With school interruptions, quarantines, closures, unaffordable and inaccessible daycare, parents have nowhere to put their children. They are often faced with the impossible decision to choose between jobs where they are paid too little and childcare solutions that cost too much.

Here in Brown County, we have few viable options for care of children aged 3 and under. With only one licensed center located on the north end of the county, parents are often expected to roll the dice on quality by using one of the unlicensed in-home private care options.

As the mother of a 10 month old, I consider myself lucky to have obtained one of the few available spots in a local home-based daycare with a provider I love and trust. If my daughter attends a full schedule of five days a week, I will pay $11,700 per year. That is less than our county’s average of $12,612 for infant care, but comparable to the average in-state tuition at Indiana University. I’m also lucky that I am in my 30s with an established career and a working spouse.

I shudder to think how women in their 20s can manage, let alone women working “non-traditional” hours, or women with more than one child.

In July of 2020, we surveyed nearly 200 parents across the county to better understand the current state of early childhood education in our community. At that time there were approximately 716 young children (ages 0 to 5) with a county program capacity to serve 244. Parents who had children under the age of 6 were asked to identify their current method of child care.

The top three options currently used were:

  • family child care program, friend/neighbor watches child or family member watches child. Many parents lamented that they have had to take time off work when their family members are unavailable, that it’s difficult to find someone they can trust and that they fear their children are missing out on learning and social opportunities available in more structured environments. When asked about the effects of child care issues on their work, respondents reported that child care had affected their:
  • Ability to work more hours (44%)
  • Ability to focus at work (31%)
  • Ability to get to work on time (25%)
  • Ability to not miss work (26%)
  • Ability to get a job (20%)
  • Ability to continue education (17%)

In 2018, Early Learning Indiana worked with researchers from Indiana University to complete a cost study of the impact of inadequate child care on Indiana’s economies. It is important to note that this study was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and these estimates are likely worse today. The report found that child care related absences and turnover cost Indiana employers $1.8 billion annually. The cost to Brown County, specifically, is estimated at $3.3 million.

More important than the economic impacts, science has proven that high-quality early childhood education is critical to development. A child’s brain develops most rapidly between birth and age five when the foundational structures for learning and human interaction are established. However, we’re not paying those responsible for providing that education a living wage. The median annual income for a child care worker is about $25,500 even though 87% of them have some form of higher education.

How can daycare cost so much, yet severely underpay workers, 95% of which are women?

The U.S. Treasury recently released a report that found a typical child care business had a 1% profit margin before the pandemic. Though our government doesn’t highly subsidize these necessary programs, they highly regulate them. Laws are understandably put in place to keep children safe, like CPR training, finger printing and background checks, water tests, teacher training, square footage requirements and staff to child ratios. As a result, the tuition of toddlers (5 to 10 per caregiver) is often used to subsidize the cost of near constant supervision that infants require (3 to 4 per caregiver). The subsidization of public preschool, though also very necessary, makes it more difficult for private daycares to support infant care.

Claire Suddath with Bloomberg Business put it rather succinctly when she wrote that child care, “is the rare example of an almost entirely private market in which the service offered is too expensive for both consumers and the businesses that provide it.” Simply put, where child care is concerned, the free market is largely failing.

Over the next several months this series will highlight issues surrounding child care affordability and availability in Brown County, the necessity of a well-functioning child care sector for working families and workable solutions that allow us to collectively address the issue in a meaningful way. I hope you will follow along and if you’re interested in getting involved with our county’s Birth to Five Coalition, who is actively working to solve these problems, that you will reach out to me.

Maddison Miller is the chief executive officer of the Brown County Community Foundation. BCCF’s preschool scholarship program ensures every child in Brown County, regardless of their family’s income, has access to high quality early childhood education. In the 2020-2021 school year, they provided funding for 27 children to attend preschool. Annually, BCCF provides around $1 million in grants to support broad areas of community need – education, social services, health care, arts and humanities and environment – to help build a stronger, healthier Brown County.