Utah’s child care problem will get worse. This is how the state can help

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Marissa Moran planned to reduce her working hours to spend more time with her two young children.

“I was hoping to be the person who can take on the role, whether she has a half day on Fridays or going early to pick up so my son isn’t always the last kid in daycare like he is now ‘ Moran said.

Then her family learned that her childcare costs would increase by 9% since federal grants to stabilize the industry expire in October.

Moran and her husband have begun discussing whether it makes sense for both of them to work as childcare costs rise, she said.

You probably won’t be the only parent facing tough decisions if things don’t change.

Childcare was “a mess” even before the coronavirus pandemic, said Jenna Williams, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children.

Then the federal government stepped in with stabilization grants as COVID-19 exacerbated problems in the industry. Utah received nearly $600 million to support the child care sector and increased the number of places available for families – to fund services for an estimated 85,200 children.

But these funds are running out. The State Department of Child Care has announced plans to cut stabilization grants by 75% in October and phase out the funds entirely by June 2024.

Voices for Utah Children and partners like the Utah State Board of Education and United Way of Salt Lake are sounding the alarm about the looming crisis with potentially “catastrophic” implications.

They also offer options like a provider tax credit, childcare grant program improvements, and other supportive solutions.

According to a 2021 market study, infant care in Utah costs an average of $9,556 per year.

According to this study, child care for young children costs an average of $8,081 per year.

Data from KIDS COUNT has a higher estimate of $9,003 for in-center child care and $7,684 for family or home care. That’s up to 24% of a single mother’s salary and 9% of a married couple’s annual income.

These numbers are higher than state tuition at several Utah colleges, including Southern Utah University, Utah Valley University, and Weber State University. Baby care is more expensive than state tuition at the University of Utah.

And some families pay much more.

It will cost the Morans nearly $30,000 a year to place their two children in daycare this fall.

The preschool her son attends and where her daughter will start raised rates 9% in preparation for losing a stabilization scholarship, Moran said. This increase follows an 8% increase in inflation that has already been imposed.

Moran understands the reason – the daycare wants to raise teachers’ salaries – but said further increases could leave the cost unsustainable even in her two-income household. Moran is a physical therapist and her husband is a mechanical engineer at a pipeline company.

“If this keeps up, there’s just no reason for me to work at all,” she said.

The rate increases replace stabilization grants that have helped daycares stay open, Williams said.

More than 80% of Utah providers received grants, she said, and 40% told Voices for Utah Children they would have closed without the money.

Maria Soter, the Sammy Center’s founder and director, still fears it could close without adequate funding.

It’s raising interest rates by hundreds of dollars a month to make up for the loss of a stabilization grant and will still “barely break even every month.”

Soter said she couldn’t afford to give her teachers a raise.

Everyone has a part-time job, she said. Even Soter has another job, working for the University of Utah’s Crisis Division.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael and teacher Alyssa at the Sammy Center Preschool on Thursday, August 3, 2023. Data shows that childcare costs in Utah are higher than state tuition at several state universities.

Childcare workers have always been undervalued when wages are low, Williams said.

Utah Care for Kids points out that pet sitters, including doggy day sitters, dog handlers, and more, make a higher median wage than child sitters.

According to state data updated in October, the median wage for childcare workers is $23,522 a year — $11.31 an hour. The median wage for zoo keepers is $26,615, or $12.80 per hour.

Society must work to empower childcare workers as educators, Williams said.

“These aren’t babysitters,” she said. “These are people who are raising the next generation in our society.”

Soter and the teachers at Sammy Center not only focus on teaching, but also on helping children learn social skills and grow emotionally. They want to instill “lifelong problem-solving and self-regulation skills” in children.

The center is licensed to care for 16 children and has three to four adults, so there are opportunities for individual support for children who need it, Soter said.

Some children at the center were excluded from other programs and had nowhere else to go, she said. The Sammy Center accepts neurotypical and neurodivergent students and does not reject children because of behavior problems.

A few families have told her they will find ways to pay the increased rate because their child has nowhere else to go, Soter said.

But two other kids are going elsewhere, she said, and she could lose two more before the fall.

The cost of childcare is driving more parents to transfer or quit their children, switch to remote work, or make other changes to provide care at home instead.

Some of Moran’s colleagues have already taken this route, she said – three have left in the last six months due to childcare issues.

According to KIDS COUNT, 13% of children in Utah lived in families where one parent changed jobs because of childcare issues. Changes may include leaving, not taking on a new job, changing work hours, and more. That was national and higher than 28 other states, including neighboring Wyoming.

A US Chamber of Commerce survey report found that 34% of Utah women and 28% of Utah men were affected by child care issues.

This report also found more detailed impacts of childcare costs and shortages:

  • 6% of the women and 1% of the men were dismissed.

  • 11% of women and 6% of men quit their jobs.

  • 12% of women and 9% of men switched to part-time work.

  • 6% of women and 13% of men could not take a new job.

Parents also reported missing work or classes, being late or distracted, and receiving calls about their children or other disruptions at work.

Men were more likely to report skipping or being late, while women were more likely to report frequent disturbances and distractions.

Absences and turnover due to childcare issues cost Utah employers an estimated $1.1 billion a year, according to another report by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and its Utah Community Builders program.

Enterprises need to be a “fairly robust” part of the solution-making process, said Kabi Catalano, executive director of Utah Community Builders.

There are many options, she said, from providing on-site care, to subsidizing care through flexible employee spending accounts, to contracting with a third-party provider for replacement care.

Plans to return to the office after the pandemic have put additional strain on working families, Catalano said, and could test parents’ attitudes about whether they can stay in the workforce. This in turn can exacerbate labor shortages.

Companies should ask their employers what they need and work with authorities to find solutions, she said.

Lawmakers also need to step up, Williams said.

“Utah has idealized staying at home. The problem is that most parents can’t afford it,” she said. “A lot of policymakers here grew up in their mothers’ homes and that’s the most experience they have of childcare.”

Moran questioned why the government doesn’t help most parents until their child is five years old.

“The biggest lie we’ve ever been sold is that in Utah, family comes first,” she said.

The government must start helping to pay the bill, Moran said.

Proponents have asked for funding to continue stabilization grants, Williams said, but a recent request has been “a little mocked.” The amount is so high because nothing like it has ever happened before, she said, and there are already plans to come back with a smaller amount.

Other potential solutions include a wage supplement and tax credit for childcare providers to help them stay in the industry, she said.

Utah could also expand its child care grant program. Currently, only 9.5 percent of eligible families receive a grant, Williams said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Louie and Isla play with toys on Thursday, August 3, 2023 at the Sammy Center preschool. Utah lawmakers could do a lot more to subsidize rising childcare costs, a mother-of-two preschooler said, adding, “The biggest lie we’ve ever been told is that in Utah, family comes first .”

A child tax credit passed earlier this year is a big help, she said, but analysis has shown it helps “very few people.”

In general, state legislatures have historically not allocated much money to childcare, Williams said.

“We just have to do something because there isn’t a lot of investment yet,” she said.

Megan Banta is the data reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. a philanthropic position. The Tribune retains control of all editorial decisions.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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