In case you haven’t heard, the state of child care in Idaho is in a precarious state. If you’re a working parent of a young child, there’s a good chance you’ve struggled to find affordable, reliable child care. If you’re a child care provider, it’s likely you struggle to hire and retain the staff to operate at a capacity that keeps your business solvent. We simply don’t have enough child care openings to accommodate every family who needs care. This affects workforce participation — placing financial strain on working parents — and limiting the pool of candidates.
The worst part is that child care access in Idaho is going to get much worse, before it gets better.
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the state of Idaho moved quickly to use federal relief grants to support our child care industry. At a time when many programs had to close temporarily or operate at a limited basis to adhere to health and safety protocols, these funds were a lifeline that enabled many child care providers to stay open. While many of the effects of the pandemic have waned and life has returned to normal for many, the challenges for the child care industry have only compounded. Once these funds expire at the end of June 2023, we expect many providers will be forced to close their doors.
Recent surveys of both child care employees and owners found concerning results: 75% of child care facilities are receiving support from facilities and/or wage enhancement grants, and 57% said when this funding expires, they will have to raise tuition on families, many of whom are already struggling to pay tuition; 37% have said they would lay off staff or cut wages; 14% said they will close their program.
Many industries that received pandemic support were able to bounce back and operate without ongoing financial assistance, but the child care business model has become unsustainable for a few reasons. The median hourly wage for child care providers in Idaho is $12, and many child care professionals are leaving at an alarming rate, simply because they cannot afford to remain in a job that pays so low when they can get a job in other industries that start at $15-$20 per hour.
In the survey, 86% of child care facilities with staff reported recruitment and retention is an issue, with low wages and no benefits listed as the No. 1 reason, and 60% report that they could provide more openings if their program were fully staffed. To pay staff a competitive wage, providers would have to raise rates significantly, pricing out many families who already struggle to afford care. Moreover, child care businesses operate on thin margins in ideal situations but simply can’t remain in business if they aren’t at full capacity. Raising rates to a point where wages are competitive would mean child care would become a luxury for those that can afford high tuition costs.
Our economy depends on access to child care, yet it’s already becoming too expensive for many families. With impending closure, the need to raise rates to recruit and retain staff, and overall reduction in available openings, families will be faced with difficult choices.
There is good work being done by both policymakers and businesses to recognize that child care needs to be accessible and affordable for everyone who needs it. Policies, partnerships and programs are needed to address both the family, and provider side of the equation. The need is immediate, with closures on the horizon, and the time for solutions is now.
Beth Oppenheimer is the executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.