Business

Lack of child care remains an economic stumbling block for Iowa women

State faces shortfall of more than 350,000 child care slots

(File photo) Tracy Ehlert (right) owner and operator of Babies 2 Kids Learning Center watches as three-year-old Kendyl Regan builds a tower using blocks at the day care center in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. The center is a level five Iowa’s Quality Rating System rated day care provider, the highest rating on a voluntary child care rating system. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
(File photo) Tracy Ehlert (right) owner and operator of Babies 2 Kids Learning Center watches as three-year-old Kendyl Regan builds a tower using blocks at the day care center in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, August 15, 2017. The center is a level five Iowa’s Quality Rating System rated day care provider, the highest rating on a voluntary child care rating system. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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In a state in need of more workers, women continue to face a major hurdle in the shortage of child care options.

“We know we have all these job openings in manufacturing and health care and customer services across the state and we have individuals who want to work, but they are not connecting,” Iowa Women’s Foundation Executive Director Dawn Oliver Wiand said.

“But how can you work, go back to school or get the training you need if you don’t have anybody to watch your children? And if your children aren’t in safe places, you will worry about them — and there goes your productivity.”

Research gathered by Coralville-based Iowa Women’s Foundation and its partners has shown that lack of child care options is a major inhibiting factor, especially for households with two working parents or those struggling to make ends meet.

And the data is shocking.

Oliver Wiand noted that research shows 75 percent of Iowa households with children under the age of six have both parents working outside the home.

Estimates show there are nearly 530,000 children up to the age of 12 in Iowa, while there are just more than 165,000 available child care slots.

That’s a shortfall of more than 350,000 slots, creating an average of one in two children without access to affordable child care. “Iowa lost 40 percent of its child care providers over the past five years,” she added.

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In Linn County alone that number jumps to 50 percent, with 59 percent of child care centers reporting no vacancies.

In Johnson County, the numbers are similar. At any given time, there are 50 to 70 children are on waiting lists at Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.

“And we are finding that communities like Fort Dodge need 1,600 more child care slots just to meet the need in their community,” Oliver Wiand said. “And I want to be clear that this is not us saying the current providers that are out there aren’t doing their job or that it’s not quality care. We are just saying we don’t have enough child care available.”

Oliver Wiand noted that before- and after-school care programs are more common in urban areas, but there are few such programs in smaller communities throughout the state. Local libraries are being tapped as program resources.

Liang Chee Wee, president at Northeast Iowa Community College, noted that child care as a barrier to economic stability is an issue that cuts across many industries.

“In conversations with employers, in addition to shortage of skilled workforce, affordable housing, affordable child care and reliable transportation are key reasons for difficulty in hiring or keeping workers,” he said. “Some companies have set up their own child care service for employees.

“Such services need subsidy to sustain even with financial contributions from employees. But given the costs of turnover and hiring, some companies are willing to invest in supporting child care for their employees.”

With rising child care costs, Dr. Wee said child care now constitutes a larger portion of a family’s expenses than before thus reducing spending in other areas, such as education and training that may enable one to enter the labor market or attain a higher-paying position.

“We really want to see more people go into child care has a business. We don’t want them to just seem themselves as baby sitters. They are entrepreneurs who are running successful businesses."

- Dawn Oliver Wiand, Iowa Women's Foundation

“Lack of affordable child care has caused women to drop out of the labor market because the pay earned might not be enough to cover child care cost,” he said.

He also pointed out that when families receive child care support from state agencies, it also can be a hindrance to promotions.

“A family who earns more than a certain income level will see their support terminated. There is no gradual decrease in child care support in relation to increase in earning. Therefore, some workers may decline a full-time position or a promotion, for example, because the loss of child care support will negate any increase in pay.”

‘A tool kit’

To start working toward solutions to these major child care gaps, the Iowa Women’s Foundation is kicking off a community engagement project this month in cities across the state to help address the child care issue as it relates to the economy.

Oliver Wiand said she is excited about the series of community planning sessions, the first of which took place this past Thursday and Friday in Iowa Falls. Future events are in the works.

“We are going to convene major stakeholders from the community that have some impact or play an important role in child care,” she said. “We are going to provide them with the current data, what child care looks like in the state of Iowa and what child care looks like in their particular community.

“And we’ve identified six possible solutions that communities can consider and we will present them with a tool kit that includes what it will take, what are best practices.”

The Iowa Women’s Foundation is seeking to engage a wide cross-section of the community.

“We know we can’t do this by ourselves,” said Oliver Wiand, noting that it is working alongside Early Childhood Iowa, Childcare Resource and Referrals, United Way and several community foundations.

They also hope to involve local businesses in the conversation.

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“We are putting together a presentation showing businesses why child care should be important to them and how it can impact their bottom line and how it impacts productivity and absenteeism. We have companies that have told us it was the best thing they’ve ever done to help solve the day-care problem.”

Oliver Wiand also said that entrepreneurship plans an important role as well.

“We really want to see more people go into child care has a business. We don’t want them to just seem themselves as baby sitters. They are entrepreneurs who are running successful businesses,” she said.

“If a community should look at that solution we want to come back and help them identify their entrepreneurs, recruit more and provide them with training that is needed to support them once they are up and running.”

There is potential to make a real impact, Oliver Wiand said, and she’s excited the Foundation will play the role of convener, cheerleader and connector.

“We know these are not the only solutions but it’s a starting point to get the discussion going,” she said. “We know the shortage of child care across our state is so deep that it’s going to take more than one solution.”

For more information, go to http://iawf.org.

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