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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — The problems are clear for many to see: Iowa needs more child care options, and they need to be more affordable for parents.
For Alex Glenn, director of human resources for Generation Next child development centers and preschools in Central Iowa, the best way to address what parties call a child care “crisis” is both simple and expensive.
“I know this answer’s not going to appease a lot of people, but it’s money,” Glenn said. “Magic wand — it is throwing money at the problem.”
According to state figures, almost 1 in 4 Iowans live in a child care “desert,” which is an area with a shortage of licensed child care providers. The issue is more pronounced in rural Iowa, where more than 1 in 3 Iowans live in child care deserts.
Access is not the only issue. So is affordability.
A family earning the state’s median income of roughly $77,000 would pay 15 percent of the income on child care at a licensed center, or 10 percent at a registered home, according to the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral. The national nonprofit advocacy organization Child Care Aware of America classifies affordable child care as 7 percent of a family’s income.
Staffing at the child care centers is a part of the overall problem as well. Centers are having a difficult time finding and retaining workers — 4 out of 5 child care centers nationally said they are experiencing a staffing shortage, according to a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
In that same survey, roughly 4 out of 5 respondents said wages are a main challenge for both recruiting and retaining workers. The median annual wage for a child care worker in Iowa was $25,460 as of May 2020, the last time federal labor data is available.
Policymakers are wrestling with how to address the complex and intertwined problems: how to create more openings at child care centers while also helping the centers pay their workers better without asking parents to pay even more than they already do.
Dawn Oliver Wiand, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Women’s Foundation and a member of the child care task force established by Gov. Kim Reynolds, discussed all those issues on this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS.
Like Glenn, who also made his comments on the same “Iowa Press” episode, Oliver Wiand said any solution will have to include some kind of financial assistance.
“It’s going to take multiple solutions in multiple ways, and those are going to be different from community to community,” Oliver Wiand said. “We look at a public-private partnership. We need to see both federal and state dollars. But we also need to see business dollars and philanthropic dollars all coming together to address this issue and to really look at what solutions we can put into place to help. …
“Our No. 1 recommendation from the governor’s child care task force was to increase wages and find a way to get benefits for child care providers. How? That’s the big thing. What is that going to take?”
Glenn was asked if that means money from government assistance or subsidies. “I don’t know where else it comes from, to be honest with you,” he said.
Republican lawmakers, who have agenda-setting majorities in the Iowa Legislature along with the Republican governor, have been attempting to address child care over the past two legislative sessions. Last year, legislators passed a law that allows Iowans receiving child care assistance to be slowly weaned off that assistance rather than dropped cold turkey when they reach a certain income level. That law addressed what had become known as the child care “cliff.”
This year, many of the Republican-led proposals have to do with regulations on or financing or tax breaks for child care centers.
Reynolds’ task force met and made 15 formal recommendations. Among them is a recommendation that the state provide more flexibility in the child care assistance program. But the task force did not recommend raising the program’s income threshold.
The task force, which was comprised of child care stakeholders and business leaders, also recommended creating new and supporting existing tax credits and incentives to encourage child care employers to hire more staff and create more openings.
“That’s why you’re seeing us propose so many pieces, because we know there isn’t just one that completely changes the shift of the child care issue,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford. “I don’t think as many of us in the Legislature would be talking about it, between the House, Senate and the governor’s office, if we didn’t think that we’re making a positive impact. … I think we’ve already started down that path. And it’s going to take time to get more investment in local communities, with partnerships, and all that takes time.”
One Republican proposal this year would increase the allowed ratio of children-to-workers in a child care setting. Republicans proposed changing the ratio from the current level of six children per worker to 8-to-1. After hearing concerns from providers, Republicans last week said they’ll amend their proposal to 7-to-1.
“Ratios exist for a reason, and it’s safety. It’s a quality education,” Glenn said, comparing child-to-staff ratios to efforts to reduce class sizes in schools, which data has showed provides a better education for students. “That way we can individualize education, we can provide more individualized care, we can get to know the children a little bit better, and we can keep them as safe as possible.”
Glenn said things like streamlining regulations or providing tax incentives are helpful, but the most helpful thing still is financial assistance, especially because of the staffing issues.
“We need larger centers, especially in those rural communities. We need the ability to house these children and care for them and provide educational opportunities,” he said. “But we also need to find staff for those. I know the Iowa Child Care Challenge has opened up about 9,000 spots, or is trying to for child care. But my first thought is, ‘Who’s going to staff those?’
“It’s difficult right now. We need help to not only to build those child care centers and places, but we need benefits that are comparable to other fields. And the money just isn’t there to do so.”
Oliver Wiand said because of the high cost of child care, financial relief should not come from more costs to parents. She said the Iowa Women’s Foundation proposes increasing the income threshold for Iowans to receive child care assistance from 145 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent.
At 145 percent, for example, a family of four in Iowa making $40,237 is at the threshold of eligibility for full child care assistance. Raising that to 185 percent would increase that threshold to $51,337.
“First we need to do that,” Oliver Wiand said. “And then we need to look at what are other ways that we can increase revenue and decrease expenses for our child care centers without increasing parent fees. We cannot put this issue on the back of parents anymore. We have to step out of the box and find unique, different ways to address this.”
Iowa House Democrats have proposed raising that threshold to 200 percent. That would increase the income threshold for a family of four to $55,500.
“Let’s look at child care reimbursement. Let’s look at wages for child care workers. Let’s make sure that we’re actually paying the people who are caring for our kids as well as we can so that they stay in the position,” said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, a Democrat from Windsor Heights. “We need to be focusing on increasing the workforce, not getting rid of regulations that were actually designed to keep kids safe in child care centers. I think we’re focusing on the wrong thing here.”
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James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.