Childcare shortage has widespread impacts |

Childcare shortage has widespread impacts

Jimiann Murphy, an assistant teacher at the Discovery Learning Center, reads a book to her students. (photo by Matt Stensland)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A lack of available and affordable high quality childcare impacts an entire community — not just those with children.

Every service a person may want or need, points out Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, requires that service provider — whether it be a doctor, firefighter or chef — have a safe and reliable place for their children. And the reality is, Melton said, a large percentage of people in the Yampa Valley’s workforce have kids. And 77 percent of kids under six have all available parents in the workforce.

In January, Melton, who cited the local shortage of childcare as one of her priorities during her 2018 campaign, became the co-chair of the First Impressions Early Childhood Council along with Steamboat Springs City Council member Lisel Petis. First Impressions has been working over the past year to gather input from the community and create a community plan and strategy for addressing the complex challenges around early childcare. Four working groups have been meeting since last May to gain an in-depth understanding of the issue from the following perspectives: families, employers, service providers, and community groups.

“Part of a thriving community is the ability for families to continue to live and work in the community,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Kara Stoller, who leads the employers group.

“When there is not childcare available or it is cost-prohibitive, families consider relocating. When families relocate out of a community, the employee pool decreases, diversity decreases, and a community’s character can change.”

There is also a significant economic impact with a far-reaching ripple effect.

Across Colorado, a 2017 report described the early care and education sector as a “key driver for the state’s economy.”

The Early Milestones Colorado study, prepared by the University of Denver and Brodsky Research and Consulting, found the industry directly produces over $639 million and 22,000 jobs annually across the state. Indirectly, it generates close to “$800 million in annual sales and services, over 10,000 jobs and more than $265 in related earnings.” In addition, the sector “generates $4.4 billion in earnings annually by enabling parents to work, and it saves the economy $832 million each year due to the long-term effects of quality education.”

Yet, despite that economic impact across Colorado, the report concludes, there is a paradox. “The cost of high quality care is prohibitive for many families in Colorado, programs have to make difficult choices when revenues do not meet expenses, and wages for the early care and education workforce do not promote family self-sufficiency,” the report said.

For families, a year of center-based care for an infant or toddler costs 44 percent more than they would pay for a year of public college tuition in Colorado.

It is a business in which “revenues do not meet expenses,” according to the report, and in which “early care and education professionals earn just 51 percent of the average salary for kindergarten teachers in Colorado, placing them at the poverty level for a family of four.”

In Routt County, the primary issue the First Impressions Council found is a “significant shortage of child care capacity for children from birth to age two.” Many parents face the dilemma of leaving the workforce to care full time for their children.

Because of the costs and requirements involved in providing infant and toddler care in a center, it is nearly impossible to make a profit, especially without subsidies or without charging families more than they can afford.

The shortage, along with affordability of care, aren’t new problems. But they don’t come with easy solutions — especially in a culture that doesn’t value or support early childcare and motherhood like the rest of the developed world. Of 42 developed countries, the United States is the only country without a law providing paid maternity leave. The United States also falls behind other industrialized countries in funding preschool for three and four-year-olds.

Without that institutional public support, communities must be innovative.

One of the First Impression Council’s top goals is to increase slots available for infants and toddlers. And while caregivers that fall into the “family, friends and neighbors” category are an essential part of the system, Melton said the bigger numbers they want to add require them to focus on adding new centers. Licensed in-home providers are only allowed to have two children under the age of two and, largely due to the regulatory requirements and the cost-prohibitive nature of the business, it has been close to 15 years since a new childcare center opened in Routt County.

That looks to be changing soon, however, with a new center slated to open in April in Phippsburg, which is good news for South Routt, where there are currently no licensed centers.

Statewide, there is only enough licensed capacity to care for 18 percent of children under two years old. In Routt County, it’s about 15 percent, Melton said. Of the 94 licensed slots in the county, Melton said there are actually only about 50 percent of those available, as centers often don’t have the staff to offer every slot for which they are licensed.

Workforce is a huge challenge for centers as well, Melton said. Recruiting and retaining high-quality child caregivers — and paying them a livable wage — isn’t easy and a barrier to increasing capacity.

First Impressions is proposing solutions to encourage more young people to enter into early childhood education classes and find ways to increase wages and reduce turnover.

In terms of family affordability, the Milestones report found that “public programs provide approximately 28 percent of the revenue for Colorado’s early care and education industry, while private sources, primarily family fees, pay the remaining 72 percent.” As is, “families are unable to pay the full cost of the quality care and education that they want and that society benefits from. However, society is not picking up the marginal costs between what families can afford and what quality services cost. The result is that the early care and education sector is in market failure.”

There are some local programs assisting families with tuition, which has also always been a mission of First Impressions. The cost of care — which can be more than a monthly mortgage — is especially trying given the high cost of living in Routt County. Average daily costs at care centers in the Yampa Valley range from $40 to $67. For licensed in-home care providers, daily rates range from $30 to $60.

First Impressions also found the challenge of “cliff effect,” when low-income families lose public assistance after wage increases but then can’t afford the full cost of childcare.

For employers, the council is working on ideas for implementing family friendly policies, Stoller described. Those include offering flexibility around things like doctor appointments and teacher conferences, options to either work from home or bring kids to work and parental leave.

Flexibility could also come in the form of offering employees the option to work four 10-hour days, Melton said. That way, if both parents had four-day weeks, they could hypothetically only need childcare for two days — thus reducing the overall demand.

On-site childcare, even at market rates, is often a touted feature of the nation’s top companies, Melton noted.

Another pressing issue they found was an increased need for specialized services, Melton said, for kids with unique behavioral or medical needs, and care outside of traditional work hours.

The stakes are huge, the initial draft of the First Impressions Council’s community plan concludes. It is the very existence of the middle class, in that “an environment of limited and expensive early care and learning options will force out families and employees from our communities, leading to a loss of community character and economic competitiveness.”

There are also very dire and very human consequences — such as the increased risk of depression and financial despair for families, and for children, not having access to the care  means they miss having a chance to thrive and meet their potential as happy, healthy humans and contributing members of society.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.

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