As with most other places in the United States, Iowa’s data about the well-being of women and girls presents two contradictory stories:
Some women are thriving. More women are entering the labor force, attending and graduating from college, and enlisting in the military. Girls are reaching greater proficiency in academics, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
And overall, women’s life expectancy has increased, the data shows.
But in contrast, even more women and girls face barriers to achievement and prosperity.
Research shows us that 70 percent of Iowa’s female-headed households are struggling for economic security, with 40 percent living in poverty and another 30 percent not earning enough to support their basic living expenses.
What we learned by listening
To understand why women and girls are struggling and what barriers impact their success, the Iowa Women’s Foundation launched a state tour in 2015 called SHE MATTERS: We Listen and Iowa Wins. We held focus groups in 18 communities across Iowa, where we learned there are six key barriers to women’s economic self-sufficiency — employment, child care, housing, education/training, transportation and mentors.
IWF returned to the 18 communities in 2016 and shared the results.
We reviewed the findings from the study and talked about the priority barrier communities they believed was the most significant — child care.
The data reinforces this need within the state of Iowa, especially throughout our rural communities:
• 75 percent of Iowa households with children under the age of 6 have all parents working outside the home.
• There are 529,076 children under age 12 in Iowa but only 167,399 child care spaces available, leaving a shortfall of 361,677 spaces.
• On average, one in two children go without access to affordable, quality child care.
• Iowa has lost 40 percent of its child care businesses over the past five years.
Research also tells us that the Midwest is the only U.S. region where job openings outnumber job seekers. In May 2018, there were 65,877 open jobs across Iowa, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
Today, there are 38,672 jobs listed on indeed.com. Because of our state’s employee shortfall, there is an estimated $675 million in unrealized annual GDP.
Workforce shortage, child care crisis
Three-quarters of Iowa families with children under the age of 6 all have available parents working outside the home, yet almost a quarter of Iowans live in an area undersupplied with licensed or registered child care options.
The results paint a clear picture of how workforce development is hindered by a lack of child care — of these families, 65 percent of parents are late to work or leave early because of child care issues.
Employees also miss an average of nearly two weeks of work per year due to the same problems.
The gaps in child care affect Iowa’s workforce and businesses’ bottom line and will continue to do so until we take action.
This problem is escalating. It needs to be addressed for the long-term health of families, businesses and communities across our state. But we cannot rely on a single organization or a single solution to fix it.
Collaboration is key
To address the child care crisis, IWF and partner organizations started the Building Community Child Care Solutions Collaborative.
Through our shared work, 22 communities across Iowa now are exploring innovative ways to exchange ideas among business and community leaders, employees and organizations to promote child care investments that support children’s healthy development and a competitive business environment — both for the short and long term.
The collaborative efforts are based on community-led change.
Through listening and learning, educating and engaging, the collaboration ultimately supports successful families, a steady Iowa workforce and a stronger economy.
The collaborative already has brought people together from all corners of the state to learn from each other and share their success stories — saving time, money and energy so communities can focus on real solutions. So far, communities involved in the effort include Ames, Carroll/Glidden, Cedar Rapids, Clinton, Decorah, Dubuque, Fairfield, Fort Dodge, Grinnell, Ida County, IKM-Manning, Iowa Falls, Jefferson, Lee County, Lone Tree, Marshalltown, Mason City, Ottumwa, Red Oak, Sioux City, Storm Lake and Waterloo.
Together, we are investing in community-led solutions to address the child care and workforce shortages. We are increasing the availability of quality child care.
We are growing Iowa’s workforce. And we are strengthening our communities.
We are stronger together.
• Dawn Oliver Wiand is executive director of the Iowa Women’s Foundation.