Talk to any parent with young children or infants and you're likely to hear one common complaint: It's really hard to find the right place, person and time to have their child looked after while they're working. Now a new statewide report confirms that this is more than a legitimate gripe.
The report finds that the vast majority of families in Vermont don’t have access to quality child care.
The new research is from the nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, and states that nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s infants and toddlers who likely need it don’t have access to high-quality day care.
This poses a big challenge to working parents, but it also affects children's opportunities for growth and learning. The report also found that in families in which both parents work, at least one spouse missed worked fairly frequently due to a child care issue.
VPR spoke with Robyn Freedner-Maguire, the campaign director of Let’s Grow Kids, and Michelle Leeman, a South Burlington parent, who's had to leave the work force due to a lack of affordable quality child care.
“It's a problem across the country,” says Freedner-Maguire. “We wanted to get a better understanding of what the need is across the state. We were hearing a lot from parents about what the challenge is, and certainly we've been hearing from providers about the struggles that they face to offer high quality affordable child care.”
To create the in-depth report, Let’s Grow Kids and a coalition of organizations and state agencies analyzed state data about populations of children and locations of licensed day cares.
“We know that 70 percent of children under the age of six have all of their parents in the labor force,” says Freedner-Maguire.
Looking at that statistics, the researchers determined that around 13,000 infants and toddlers across the state need care.
It’s not just a problem in rural areas, says Freedner-Maguire, “there's not a county in the state that is able to meet the need of children.”
When it comes to infants, it's even more of a challenge: Eighty-five percent of infants likely to need care do not have access to high quality care. In five counties, some of those numbers are over 90 percent.
“Affordability is stressful on both sides of the equations,” she says. “For middle-income families, they're paying 28 to 40 percent of their household income. And when you talk to child care providers, they're earning $25,000 on average a year, most of the time without benefits, which is a real struggle.”
Freedner-Maguire says many childcare providers do not charge the true cost of providing care, so both parents and providers are really bearing the burden in funding the system.
When parents can’t afford to work
Michelle Leeman, a South Burlington parent, has a 4-month-old girl.
“We ran across a situation where we were trying to find infant care, and it does cost more to actually have an infant in child care than it does as a toddler or any other age," she says.
Leeman says she dropped out of the workforce, because when her family did the math they would have actually had a net decrease in income.
That’s because the family’s income would not only be going to childcare but also health care and other costs.
“Our joint income would increase our family's income, and we wouldn't get any benefits that would help us toward child care, health care or any other benefits that the state would offer.”
Leeman is a full-time parent now out of necessity.
“I do feel conflicted. I went to college, I got a degree and I was a professional in the medical field,” she says. “And now I didn't really have a choice. I love being home with my daughter. I like being around her and teaching her things and seeing all of her firsts. Yet this is my highest earning potential as a woman and I'm out of the workforce because I can't afford childcare.”
She says it was a decision to have a child. "We thought about it we decided and we chose to have a child but we still aren't able to provide care," she says.
On finding a solution
At the state level, there's a blue ribbon commission on how to finance high quality affordable childcare. The group will release its report in November to the administration and the Legislature.
“Our hope is that the state acts on it and recognizes that for every dollar that we invest in early childhood there's a $7 to $10 return and other savings down the road, things like corrections and our public education system and so on,” says Freedner-Maguire.
Currently, Vermont has a ranking system for childcare quality called STARS.
“It is just one indication of quality,” she says. “Even if we took a quality out of it, nearly 50 percent of infants and toddlers do not have access to any regulated care across the state.”
She says nearly half of Vermont’s children are entering kindergarten unprepared: “A lot of the problems that we're seeing in social emotional development really could be mitigated if we invested more in the early care programs for ages zero to 5 years old.”