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Who Cares about Child Care?

Communities across Central Minnesota are creating solutions to the region's childcare shortage. 

By Laura Billings Coleman | Photography by John Linn

Brainerd child care provider Audriana Wallin has an inside tip for working couples in her community who are interested in starting a family or expanding the one they already have: “Get your name on the waiting list as soon as possible.”

One of the staff members at Annie’s Childcare & Learning Center, Wallin spends her days rocking babies in the infant room while attempting to soothe anxious families who call to find out if they’re making any progress on the center’s 18-month waiting list for infant care. “We get calls all the time from people who aren’t even pregnant yet, but they’re thinking about it, and they want to get on the list now because they’ve heard how hard it is to get a spot,” said Wallin, who adds that the list is likely to grow now that another child care center in the area closed its doors in May.

A licensed social worker and single mom, Wallin works at Annie’s a few days a week for an hourly rate that’s lower than she could make elsewhere, in part, so that her two kids, ages 6 and 2, have access to the high-quality early childhood education she values. That’s why she knows what a hardship it is for parents who are pursuing new jobs in the region, or ready to return to the workforce after staying home with a young child, when they encounter a six- to eight-month wait for a spot to open in the toddler or preschool rooms. “Having a child care shortage puts a lot of people’s plans on hold,” she said. “You just don’t have many options, and sometimes parents have to make do with situations they don’t want for their kids, just to go back to getting a paycheck.”

High demand for child care is hardly confined to Brainerd: Minnesota is now confronting one of the worst child care shortages anywhere in the nation, with more than four children under age 5 for every available child care center slot. Though the state has long had one of the country’s highest rates of workforce participation among parents with young children, a recent study from the Center for American Progress found that more than 3.8 million Minnesotans are living in a community with fewer than one child care center spot for every three kids who need it—a condition defined as a “child care desert.” 

While that trend is troubling, it doesn’t even factor in the precipitous decline in the total number of licensed in-home family child care (FCC) operators—the child care option most rural parents depend on—which has dropped by more than 25 percent in the last decade. While nearly 5,000 new child care center slots in Greater Minnesota have helped to answer the need, the disappearance of more than 20,000 family child care positions has created a net loss of more than 15,000 child care openings in the state’s rural communities. Here in the 14-county region served by the Initiative Foundation, more than 300 FCCs closed their doors between 2011 and 2016.

“This is one of those issues that’s been building up under the radar for a long time because child care is a such personal family issue,” said Marnie Werner, research director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato, which reported these findings last fall in a white paper on the state’s rural child care shortage. A variety of factors lie behind the so-called “quiet crisis,” from a wave of Baby Boomer retirements to a steady workforce shortage in the region that’s opened up more lucrative career options for women—still the primary providers of early childhood education. While observers say there’s been a decades-long decrease in child care providers, more recent regulations that set limits on the numbers and age ranges of children allowed in family settings, increasing the required annual training hours for licensed providers, may have been an additional hardship for rural providers, limiting their profits while increasing their licensing demands.

“When you have a surplus of workers to choose from, and a potential hire can’t figure out child care, it used to seem like the family’s problem to solve,” said Werner. “But we don’t have that luxury anymore, and employers are finding that if the workers they want can’t find child care, they don’t have the workforce they need to grow. That’s why this issue is exploding right now. Families are not just suffering in silence.”

Don Hickman, vice president for workforce and community development at the Initiative Foundation, confirms that while quality early childhood education has long been a focus for the Foundation, the quantity of child care slots in Central Minnesota has taken on new urgency. “I don’t know employers in any sector in the region who aren’t desperate for skilled workers right now, so when you have barriers like limited access to affordable child care, it hits everybody,” he said. “This will limit our economic health if we don’t figure out a way to solve it together.”

Economic Challenges

Creating a healthier child care economy is a challenge Joann Ostrowski, owner of Annie’s Childcare & Learning Center, has been pondering for years. “Of course, you don’t get into this field because of the bottom line,” said Ostrowski, who built a child care center on her family property a decade ago, when she noticed how few options there were for her grandchildren. Though she was later able to expand to a second location at Central Lakes College through a partnership that protects a certain number of slots for current students, that doesn’t mean business is booming.

“I make a living, but I haven’t been able to raise my rates in years,” said Ostrowski. “The cost of living is going up all the time, and it costs me more every year just to keep the doors open. But you can’t pass those costs on to the parents because they can’t afford it. They’re strapped as it is.”

For a family earning the region’s median annual income of $32,000, the $297 it costs each week to provide care for an infant and a preschooler could easily consume half of a household income without help from the state-subsidized Child Care Assistance Program. Even parents with higher wages find that the high cost of child care can make a second family income seem like a wasted exercise. “I have moms who work for the health insurance, and the vacation, and that’s it—child care costs take up all the rest,” said Ostrowski.

That’s why providing a 50 percent discount on child care has become an important perk for many of Ostrowski’s employees. But she knows that the $10.50 she can afford to pay hourly isn’t enough to retain her best workers when the cost of living requires $17 an hour to make ends meet. “I’d like to pay more but it’s not even possible,” she said, noting that in spite of the long waiting list, providing infant care barely breaks even for her business.  

She’s not surprised to learn that one recent media report found that after expenses, many child care providers in the state are earning just pennies per hour, or operating at a loss. “It’s one of the most important jobs you could have, cuddling babies and making kids feel safe at a time in life when their brains are developing the most,” she said. “But it doesn’t always feel like that.”

“The irony is that early childhood educators are professionals, yet in many cases they’re earning barely above the poverty line,” said Tammy Filippi, early childhood program manager at the Initiative Foundation. For more than a generation, research has shown that early childhood education provides one of the best rates of return for any community investment, returning more than $13 for every $1 spent. “But when you see that the cost of care is not even in reach for those who need it, or that child care providers can’t make a living providing a critical service to the community, the numbers just don’t make sense.”

Respected Professionals

But that may begin to change, said Rae Jean Hansen, vice president of early childhood at the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, who said the crisis has clearly caught the attention of civic leaders, legislators, local business communities and large philanthropic organizations eager to find solutions. “Almost every day we get a call from a mayor asking what can we do to solve this thing?” she said, noting that some rural communities are developing small grants for providers to offset start-up costs, waiving licensing fees, or looking at loan forgiveness programs to help child care providers create sustainable businesses in their communities.

A member of the Start Early Funders Coalition, Parent Aware Advisory Committee and the Minnesota PreK to Grade 3 Coalition, Hansen also serves on a new state initiative launched by the National Academy of Science aimed at addressing future workforce needs by transforming how we educate children from birth through age 8. One of the first items on the state’s to-do list is to increase licensed child care capacity by 37 percent and to make child care a more attractive and fairly compensated profession for educators with bachelor’s degrees or higher. To see how it could be done, Hansen joined a delegation of Minnesota child care professionals, researchers and policymakers on a trip to Sweden last year, where progressive maternity and family leave policies have fostered a culture where child care providers are respected professionals. While waiting lists for infant care are unheard of in that country, there is a long line of well-educated young people eager to join the profession.

“One of the first things we must do is teach providers to really value their own work and understand, first and foremost, you’re not ‘just watching kids,’ you’re helping to raise future leaders in your community,” said Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, director of impact investing in Minnesota for First Children’s Finance (FCF), a Minneapolis-based business development enterprise that provides low-cost loans, technical training and business development assistance to help child care providers for low- and moderate-income families. 

Rural communities have become the primary focus of FCF’s work, which now includes a Rural Child Care Innovation Program that allows communities to apply for competitive grants to earn technical and business planning assistance from FCF to create a more sustainable market for child care providers. One big challenge many potential caregivers confront is whether opening a family child care enterprise is the start of a real career path—or a dead end when a provider’s kids are old enough to go to school. 

“Let’s say you’re a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom, and you know there’s a need in your neighborhood,” said Matemba-Mutasa. “The question women have is if I create this business, in five or six  years, what’s next, what skills have I acquired?’’ One solution she envisions is partnerships with area community colleges that offer business and technical training to child care providers as a means for the community to pay back the critical service these small business owners provide.

That’s just one of many outside-the-box ideas that rural communities are experimenting with to solve their own child care challenges, said Jessica Beyer, business development specialist at First Children’s Finances. “We’re seeing a lot of new partnerships popping up over the last few years,” she said, especially “right sized” initiatives focused on using the resources the community already has, rather than starting up brand new child care centers that may not be sustainable long-term. For instance, a nursing home in Crookston now covers the overhead and food costs for an on-site child care facility that many of its own staff depend on. A construction company in Lynd enlisted a local family child care provider to create a model that meets the special needs of their construction season, with longer hours through the summer building months. In Big Stone County, nonprofits, churches and community organizations are coming together to see whether older, aging churches in the area could be repurposed to help young families find the child care they need.

In Central Minnesota, Lakes and Pines Head Start in Mora has received a license from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to open Head Start Centers in Mora and Chisago, where they provide up to eight hours a day—four days a week—of preschool for 3-5 year olds. They also are working with three licensed in-home family child care providers and two child care centers to support income-eligible Milaca and Pine City families by providing care for children ages 3-5 while their parents go to work or school.

“In rural areas, we can’t count on the same economic forces that allow child care centers to work,” said Werner. “You really need some kind of intervention to get child care providers off the ground, and I’m becoming more convinced that this is going to be solved on a local level with just plain old community innovation. The state must continue to regulate to make sure that children are safe, but not regulate so tightly that communities can’t find new solutions that work for them.”

That’s a trend that Joann Ostrowski at Annie’s Childcare would like to see more of in Brainerd, and she’s got some big ideas herself. In a community with so many health care and hospital employees, she’s often wondered whether it would be possible to launch a third-shift operation to meet her community’s need for child care, but hasn’t figured out a way to make the numbers work. “All I know is that keeping the lights on 24 hours a day would cost a lot more, but I do think there’s a need,” she said. “If I could get some help to figure that out, it just might work.”

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