Mallory Plotz and her family typify issues when it comes to child care in Minnesota.
Often those are financial and location.
“With a combined salary of $110,000 — which is not far over the median household income in Minnesota — we have faced many child care challenges,” she told the House Children and Families Finance and Policy Committee during an informational hearing Monday that turned emotional at times. “As full-time working parents of two young children, my husband and I could only afford to have one of our girls in a child care center for preschool, and only 3 days per week at $57 per day.”
However, when Plotz’s mother needed surgery for a broken foot and was unable to assist in watching the family’s youngest child for several weeks, they considered enrolling their toddler in a family child care center.
“It would be much more affordable for our income to have her in a family child care, versus the child care center that our older daughter goes to, even though this meant two drop-off and pick-up locations for our two children,” she said. “In order to afford this, my husband and I literally took out our emergency fund that we had set aside, and we planned to pull from that money each month to afford the additional child care expense that we were taking on.”
The plea from Plotz, a Parent Aware quality coach for Families First of Minnesota, underlies that, despite steps forward in the 2023 session, more is needed.
An estimated shortfall in the number of spaces needed to accommodate children under age 6 with both parents working ranges from 24% in the southern part of the state, to 56% in the central and northern regions, said Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), the committee chair. There are currently around 6,000 licensed family child-care programs in the state; just over 1,700 child care centers.
Pinto added that employers across the state consistently cite the lack of child care as a barrier to attract and maintain employees.
A 2023 law, in part, Pinto noted in May, “invests a historic $300 million over the next four years in learning for the youngest Minnesotans, including in early learning scholarships for more than 25,000 children. These investments will increase access to high-quality early care and learning programs for lower-income and vulnerable children (those with the highest needs) to improve school readiness and allow parents to access employment and education opportunities.”
Child care advocates acknowledged more must be done during Monday’s hearing.
According to a presentation from Suzanne Pearl, Minnesota director for First Children’s Finance, the average annual cost of infant care is $16,087 ($1,341/month), which is 21.2% of the state’s median family income and 30.8% more than average rent. For preschoolers, the average annual cost is $12,252 ($1,021/month).
Brittany Kjenaas, a parent of one child from Mountain Iron, reinforced the issue.
“We pay more for child care than we do for our mortgage,” she said.
The solution is not as simple as opening more centers, advocates say, because they generally operate on razor-tight margins. That, in turn, limits what employees can earn — most positions currently pay less than $20 per hour — and leads to less interest from jobseekers.
Shawntel Gruba is chief executive officer at the Iron Range Tykes Learning Center, which she said needs to raise its rates to make ends meet and expects to lose families in the process.
“At what point do they not make enough money to pay for child care?” Gruba said. “At what point do they decide that in order to make ends meet they need to find a child care option that has much lower quality? This is a horrible decision to be forced to make.”
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn (DFL-Eden Prairie) and Sen. Grant Hauschild (DFL-Hermantown) are working toward a proposal — tentatively called the Great Start Affordability Program — in the 2024 legislative session so no family would pay more than 7% of their income on child care and early learning.
“Subsidies will be designed on a sliding scale in terms of annualized income and number and age of children,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said. “… It will provide a subsidy directly to child care providers on behalf of Minnesota families based on the enrollment and participation of one or more of their children.”
Rep. Natalie Zeleznikar (R-Fredenberg Township) suggested members also look at the number of mandates placed on providers. For example, she said someone with experience being a mother or grandmother does not meet criteria to be an aide.
“We have workforce shortage and child care shortage with standards that are, quite frankly, appalling to people who have been a mom,” Zeleznikar said. “…We have to really look at what we’re mandating, what counts and who we’re leaving out as being a great child care provider.”