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On child care and early ed, go bold

Age 0 to 5 is the most critical period for learning and growth, and yet it is the period most neglected by society.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Imagine finding out, as a parent looking for child care in Minnesota, that it will cost you more to send your child to child care than it will to send them to college in our state. This is the reality that parents face. As child care providers with a combined 60-plus years of experience, we often get asked some hard questions and we’d like to answer them.

Child care costs in Minnesota, and around the country, are unaffordable for most families, and impossible for lower-income families. For a family with an infant and a 4-year old, it makes more financial sense for a parent to stay home with their kids instead of spending nearly 40% of their income on child care.

Why does child care cost so much? There are numerous costs that providers cannot control like rent, utilities and food. Providers also have to carry liability insurance and follow regulations necessary to be licensed. And don’t forget cleaning costs — particularly in a pandemic. But one of the greatest costs in child care is the cost of staffing. In Minnesota, one caregiver is needed for every four infants. As children age, one caregiver may be responsible for more children, but the bottom line is that child care is labor intensive, and that labor costs money.

One might assume that with the high cost of child care, child care workers are making high wages. Wrong. The median wage of early childhood educators in Minnesota in 2019 was $12.06 per hour, which is barely a living wage for a single person. Keep in mind that many child care workers have families of their own to support, and their own children to find care for.

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Child care runs on a small profit margin and the pandemic has exacerbated this issue. Providers have been working in a patchwork system of private funders and grants for decades. Investment by the federal government has been sparse, and investment by the state of Minnesota has been even more inadequate.

Minnesota’s investment in the Child Care Assistance Program highlights our state’s failings. This program aims to provide support to families who can’t afford the cost of care. However, families often sit on the waitlist for assistance for weeks. For years, Minnesota has sat below the federally set reimbursement rate, of only 25% of tuition. This means a family is still required to pay 75% of the cost of care, and if they cannot, the provider has to absorb that cost in business losses. Minnesota recently moved to reimburse the cost of care at a slightly higher rate of 30%, which still makes child care too expensive for many families.

Debra Messenger
Debra Messenger
Those against publicly funding child care argue that we cannot afford it. The reality is we cannot afford not to fund it. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a bold investment in early childhood education would lead to $3.7 billion of new economic activity. Numerous studies show that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, the economy nets $7 to $17 in return. To continue the way we have been is not only morally but also financially irresponsible.

The $3.5 trillion budget proposal includes funding to inch us closer to other countries around the world that provide government support to help parents raise children. It invests in a network of child care centers to provide universal child care and aims to have no family spend more than 7% of their income on child care. Public support will raise child care worker wages, enabling providers to retain well-trained staff and provide high-quality care.

Karin Swenson
Karin Swenson
There is no way around it: To provide high-quality, culturally relevant and affordable child care to every family in Minnesota, we need to publicly fund it just like we publicly fund K-12 schools. Age 0 to 5 is the most critical period for learning and growth, and yet it is the period most neglected by society.

We need to stop holding together our child care system with duct tape and instead invest in a strong foundation to give our kids the future they deserve, and we need the government — both state and federal — to truly step up to make it happen.

Debra Messenger is owner of All Ages & Faces Academy and Childcare Center in St. Paul. Karin Swenson is executive director of Meadow Park Preschool and Childcare Center in Rochester.