Staff Columnist

Iowa sees unintended consequences of child-care regulations

The kitchen in the closed Riverbend Child Care, 817 River St., in Iowa Falls, Iowa, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Jim Slosiare
The kitchen in the closed Riverbend Child Care, 817 River St., in Iowa Falls, Iowa, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Some Iowa parents are going off the state-sanctioned grid to find child care.

Nearly a quarter of Iowans live in “child care deserts,” defined as areas with three times as many children up to the age of 5 as there are spots in licensed child-care facilities, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

That’s the second-best rate in the nation, and well below the national average. But child care resources are not spread equitably throughout the state. Several counties have nearly 100 percent coverage, while more than 20 counties have less than 50 percent, according to the report.

Take note, however, that those figures account only for providers identified by the state, and not unregistered home day cares.

I am not a parent, but all Iowans have a social and economic interest in securing safe and affordable care for the youngest generation. A shortage of child-care options can force parents who want to work to stay home instead and also is likely helping fuel the exodus from our rural communities.

Given the shortage of licensed child care providers, parents are using social media to find unlicensed providers, as Gazette reporters Michaela Ramm and Molly Duffy detailed in the latest edition of Iowa Ideas magazine. One Facebook group connecting Cedar Rapids parents has been operating for four years and now has more than 700 members.

It is not illegal to offer child care without a license in Iowa, as long as a home-based provider doesn’t take in more than five children at one time. But the number of registered providers in Iowa is dropping, and some observers suspect there has been a rise in the availability of unregistered, unregulated child-care services.

“My whole network of people I connect with in the in-home world is almost gone. They left for higher pay. And doing in-home, you don’t get benefits,” Tracy Ehlert, a state representative and registered home provider, told The Gazette reporters.


At least in part, that’s a response to new federal rules for child-care operators imposed in 2016, which heavily emphasize education and development rather than just health and safety. The regulatory order published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — totaling more than 150,000 words — celebrates that it marks “new era for child care in this country.”

Here in Iowa, the “pre-inspection checklist for child development home registration” for home providers — a far less involved process than a full child care center licensure — includes nearly 200 items.

It’s easy to understand why anyone without a law degree might want to operate outside of the child development bureaucracy, even though most of the state and federal requirements are well-intentioned.

The emergence or expansion of a black market is a predictable outcome anytime government regulations make it more difficult to perform services on the legal market. Service providers might go underground, or leave the market and be replaced by unregulated newcomers.

Almost anything you can hire a licensed professional to do, you also can find an unlicensed practitioner to do — often for a lower price and perhaps lower quality.

Maybe greater regulations still make more people more better off, even accounting for the negative unintended consequences, but it’s important to scrutinize the trade-off.

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