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The state of Wisconsin child care, some industry experts say is in ‘crisis’

Published: May. 11, 2022 at 11:45 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Say the words “child care” and you are almost guaranteed to hear a personal story, regardless if the person has young children.

“When our daycare shut down we went on all the waitlist,” Kelly Hammond who lives in Stevens Point and is a parent of two children under the age of 4 began. “And when we called places they would say, ‘well, I mean we have openings in two years.’”

“I kind of kept on looking and looking and looking,” Jeannie Arndt said about her search for care for her youngest. She ended up starting her own child care business out of her home in Wisconsin Rapids.

“I’m still looking, but I don’t have high hopes, especially with weekend care,” Samantha Brown, a single parent, admitted. While her children are in grade school, her son has some special needs and still requires additional care when she goes to work.

“It is like, you know, hitting your head against a brick wall,” Hammond described. “How is this so hard? How can I be well resourced and have friends and family and network and know people and have been to every childcare center and I still struggle to like, have a consistent childcare from week to week?”

That is because accessible, affordable, quality options -- the three elements of child care that those in the industry, like Kelly Matthews with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, say are necessary -- are in short supply.

“You can get two of the three of those usually, but the thing we’re trying to tear apart is how do you get all three at the same time? Because that Is complicated.”

The UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, UW-Madison Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work, UW-Madison Survey Center, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, COWS Building the High Road, and WECA funded with dollars from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released research related to the state of the child care in Wisconsin. Most of the data is from just before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted society. It also only looks at regulated child care, which is simpler to track.

For researcher and assistant professor with the school of social work, Dr. Alejandra Ros Pilarz, it was like holding up a mirror.

“It’s interesting when your personal life and your research intersect to tell you the same message,” she said. She is the mother of a 4-year-old and saw a lot of the same struggles she and her husband faced in her data.

One element of the research looked at how physically accessible child care is for families. This interactive map illustrates households with children under the age of 5 and how many child care spots are available within a 20-minute driving radius. Urban areas are better positioned to have child care access, whereas about 70% of rural zip codes are considered child care deserts.

Data from February through DCF breaks down those zip codes by county. It shows that about half of the zip codes in Marathon County, for example, are considered a child care desert. Zooming in even further, looking at the Town of Ringle there are 95 children under the age of 5 for every child care spot.

“It doesn’t seem like access is getting better for families in Wisconsin, and for some families, it’s gotten worse over time,” Ros Pilarz commented.

Over the last 15 years, she said the overall supply of child care providers in Wisconsin has only declined slightly, but about a quarter of family child care providers have left the field. She said that is concerning because it is the setting with the most diverse workforce and where the majority, 64%, of infant and toddler care happens. It is where families with lower incomes, nonstandard working hours, and families of color often find care. It is also the type of care that is most often available for families living in rural areas, but about 20% of family care providers closed over that time.

“This is (a) concern that... parents are leaving the labor force or potentially using less regulated, potentially lower-quality childcare settings for their young kids,” Ros Pilarz explained.

“The pandemic has exacerbated an issue that was an issue prior to the pandemic. And now it’s an extreme crisis in my opinion,” Kelly Borchardt said. She would know, she is the executive director of Childcaring, the child care resource and referral agency in central Wisconsin. She gave an example that illustrates that point.

“We were contacted by a traveling nurse who wanted to take a position here in central Wisconsin, and was looking for care for her baby. And we contacted over 70 childcare providers to try to find a slot for this baby and without success,” she said that nurse ultimately could not take the job due to a lack of child care.

Since 2010, Borchardt said Childcaring’s 10-county service area has lost about 42% of its care providers which covered about 3,000 slots for kids. That is not accounting for staffing challenges at care centers where classrooms have to close due to the necessary staffing-to-children ratios.

“It’s difficult to keep teachers in childcare centers because of the low pay and benefits lack of benefits in the field,” she expressed. The same is true for family-based care. They also typically work 60-hour work weeks to accommodate working parents’ schedules for pick up and drop off. However, they are often not recognized as the early childhood educators they are.

Ros Pilarz’ research found that despite the child care workforce having various levels of high education, they get paid about 20% less than the typical Wisconsin worker with only a high school degree. Family care providers often make even less, with the typical hourly wage equating to just above minimum wage. More education typically does not earn them more money, and they cannot just raise their pay either.

“Parents can’t even afford to pay the true cost of care, let alone just the amount that’s needed to get by on a daily basis,” Borchardt said.

Proportion of weekly household income spent on regular nonparental care for all children under...
Proportion of weekly household income spent on regular nonparental care for all children under age 13 by household income level(NSECE Project Team 2016, Madill, Forry, & Halle, 2018)

Data from the National Survey of Early Care Education show child care costs make up a big portion of families’ budgets. They are spending anywhere from 11% for higher-income families to 33% for poorer families. The typical for moderate and low-income families lies between 18-21%.

“You know, you work to pay your childcare, and then you don’t have a check and you still have to pay rent and electric and, you know, other things that the children need, and it’s a big struggle,” Brown stated.

Child care providers have that same struggle, with the Wisconsin survey of the workforce indicating that more early childhood educators plan to leave the field over the next few years. Eighteen percent of family providers and 28% of center-based teachers reported that they plan to leave the field within the next two years. Another 20% said they plan to leave within five years. Just under a third of center-based teachers had looked for a new job within the six months before being surveyed. Excluding people who plan to retire, careers with better compensation and more opportunities for advancement were the most common reasons for wanting to leave.

“When there’s more turnover in the field, it’s difficult for the teachers and staff who remain in the field,” Ros Pilarz explained. “But it also takes a toll on kids. It’s bad for their development. It makes it hard for parents to work, and this then in turn, right, makes it difficult for employers to find workers. It, sort of like, exacerbates the problems in this, you know, current labor shortage. So, this is really, this is not like an isolated problem for a certain sector or certain groups of families; this is something that it has ramifications, you know, for the economy as a whole.”

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