Childcare in Iowa appears to be reaching a crisis. Nearly a quarter of the state’s residents are estimated to live in a childcare desert while the annual cost has been estimated to be more than tuition at a public university. This year addressing childcare was set to be a priority in the state legislature, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Last March at the Hope Learning Center in Chariton, a room full of about a dozen sleepy toddlers, fresh out of nap time, ate an afternoon snack of juice and crackers.
They do morning meetings, shapes, letters, numbers, all that good stuff," said Abbee Nielsen, who was then the director of Hope Learning Center, the only licensed child care center in rural Lucas County.
Nielsen said despite demand, her center isn’t operating at capacity. That’s because with a starting rate of just $8.35 an hour, she’s struggling to retain teachers while keeping the non-profit’s rates affordable for parents.
"I have parents texting me. Just one last night said, 'Hey, I have a family. Their in-home decided not to do daycare anymore. And she has no she has no childcare. Can you help out?' And I was like, I would love to, but I can't," Nielsen said.
Nielsen is no longer at the center. She left at the end of May for a teaching job.
And her replacement, long time employee Mackenzie Stites, said the COVID-19 pandemic has the center facing yet another challenge. Enrollment has dropped off sharply by 40 percent after she and Nielsen worked so hard to recruit teachers.
"It's kind of a little discouraging just because things were going so well. And now it's like, Are we going to have to rebuild that? Are we going to have to start over again and kind of like, you know," Stites said.
Even before COVID-19, childcare centers in Iowa were already struggling, and the problem seemed to be coming to a head.
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of programs listed under the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral Center dropped 37 percent. During that same period, the number of programs accepting kids on state child care assistance also decreased - by 42 percent.
(See the number of childcare programs listed with Childcare Resource and Referral here.)
State lawmakers had taken notice. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced childcare as a priority during her Condition of the State speech last January.
"It’s another barrier for families looking for a way up. For some, it’s about affordability; for others, access is the issue; and for thousands of Iowans, it’s both," she said.
(See the number of childcare spaces listed with the Childcare Resource and Referral here.)
A flurry of childcare bills were making their way through the legislature, including increasing childcare assistance rates, which child advocates have argued is too low and creating an income-based sliding scale for parents on income assistance.
Family advocacy groups like the Child and Family Policy Center and United Way had advocated for change for years, but this session, for the first time, some business organizations made it one of their legislative priorities.
(See the number of programs that take childcare assistance listed with Childcare Resource and Referral here.)
Iowa has one of the country's highest labor force participation rates, but access to childcare is affecting that, said Joe Murphy, the executive director of the Iowa Business Council, during an interview in early March.
"Having barriers to employment, barriers to entry into the workforce, like childcare, you know, kind of exacerbates that problem even more," he said. "So that's why we took a bold stand this year and included that in our legislative agenda for the first time ever.”
But then the session was suspended in mid-March due to COVID-19, and the pandemic has pushed Iowa into a bigger crisis.
Some providers, already on the financial edge, have closed because they’re afraid of the virus, said Sheila Hansen, the policy director at the Child and Family Policy Center.
"They just had to sit down and say, 'Can I do this anymore? You know, I don't think we can do this. I can't risk bringing in children, you know, who could be passing something on to me,'" she said.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has called for an additional $25 billion to help providers and workers, but the problem is many parents are struggling with childcare as well.
Polk County resident Kelly DeJoode is a single parent to her 4-year-old son Jaxson.
She says she’s been working overtime at an assisted living facility during the pandemic, but she’s cutting back to just 32 hours a week in August. This is so DeJoode doesn’t lose her state child care assistance.
"I feel if I work too many hours that I'll over qualify and not be able to get daycare assistance so it would make it so I couldn't work at all," she said.
DeJoode is concerned about is losing all of Jaxson’s state assistance if she hits a certain income level. This is known as the childcare cliff. DeJoode previously fell off this cliff in 2018 after getting a small raise.
She said her cost of childcare then went from $17 a week to $180 a week, and paying that full price would have taken half her income.
"I would have had one paycheck, and my paychecks were between $700 and $800. And my rent was $575 of that -- there was no way I was going to be able to live off $175 after I paid my rent," DeJoode said.
A bill that would create a sliding income scale for this assistance - along with four other childcare-related bills -- passed the Iowa House in March. Since the legislature reconvened this month, the Senate has advanced three of those bills.