The Challenge of Child Care

Nationally, there is a growing awareness of the connection between child care and economic development. Families need safe, affordable child care in order to hold jobs or attend school to better their career opportunities and their family’s financial stability. In Iowa more than 70% of families have all parents working outside the home. That makes access to dependable, quality child care a critical need at any time.

At United Way of Story County with our three pillars of health, education, and financial stability, we are a longtime supporter of quality child care, providing funds to support sliding fee scales for working families at ACPC, ChildServe, Story Time, and University Community Childcare through the annual ASSET process. Additional allocations are made each year to All Aboard for Kids, Boys & Girls Clubs, Campfire, and YSS’s Kids Club to support safe learning environments for school age children during out of school time. We know that our investment on the front end, helping families secure quality child care that meets their needs, will set children up for success in school and later in life. We don’t stop at funding child care services and call it good though. When we see a need we work with community partners to better understand the issues families are facing and seek solutions to overcome their barriers.  

When a 2018 report from the Iowa Women’s Foundation showed Iowa had lost 42% of its child care providers in the previous five years, creating a shortfall of more than 350,000 child care slots across the state, United Way of Story County partnered with Early Childhood Iowa’s BooST Together for Children and the Iowa Women’s Foundation to bring together early childhood professionals, business leaders and community members for a conversation about the growing child care gap. As a result, with leadership from our staff, the Childcare Business Solutions workgroup was formed in order to take a deeper look at the impact child care issues have on families and employers. Developing strategies for increased community awareness that child care is an economic workforce issue, and encouraging support for development of new and expanded child care programs are priorities of this group.

Last Spring, the advent of COVID-19 heightened child care issues in Story County as well as nationally. Since March, more than 360,000 child care workers nationwide have lost their jobs as programs shut down due to the pandemic. It has been estimated that as many as 40% of child care programs across the nation may not be able to reopen for financial or health reasons.

Locally, as the pandemic worsened and schools and child care programs began talk of shutting down, we responded by organizing a conference call on March 16th with employers, child care programs, BooST Together for Children, and non-profit youth organizations, in collaboration with Story County Emergency Management, to proactively identify immediate needs and develop solutions.  When schools didn’t reopen after Spring break, 700 school age children also lost their school based child care programs making the need for child care options even more critical for working families.

Of special concern was making sure essential workers had access to child care options. We worked with the Story County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Mary Greeley Medical Center and McFarland Clinic to identify employees who were at risk of losing their child care so we’d have a sense of what the need might be. Together we created a four step pathway for any essential worker needing child care: connecting them to Child Care Resource & Referral for referrals to existing openings in child care programs, suggesting they identify coworkers willing to share child care responsibilities based on work schedules, and giving them access to a list of volunteers recruited and mobilized to provide individual care for essential worker’s children.

The work continued to identify community groups and churches willing to provide space and volunteer child care providers in the event it was needed. As a result two child care programs, ACPC and ChildServe, stepped forward volunteering to reserve spaces for children from essential worker families. United Way of Story County worked alongside them to provide the additional funding necessary for those programs to meet heightened health and safety standards for the children and staff.

We continue to participate in community conversations, checking in regularly with child care and school age programs and the EOC in order to stay informed on the current child care landscape. We are monitoring community needs as businesses have begun reopening and know that what school districts choose to do this fall will have a major impact on the need for child care as parents fully return to work. While we don’t know what this fall’s child care needs will look like, we know that no matter what, parents need access to quality child care. As children return to school and parents return to work, we are determined to be in it for the long haul, helping to connect the dots between child care needs and solutions.