It was an offhand comment, yet too important to ignore. State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka volunteered to reporters at a presession briefing last week that among the concerns his fellow Greater Minnesota Republicans intend to bring to the 2018 Legislature is “day care” for young children.
Gazelka’s mention is a welcome acknowledgment of a worsening problem: Across the state — and particularly in Greater Minnesota — licensed child care is either insufficiently available, unaffordable or both. What has long been a headache for families is becoming a threat to the economic well-being of entire regions, as a lack of child care impedes the state’s workforce.
The severity of the problem has been quantified by two organizations: one state, one national. By the count of the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development, Greater Minnesota’s licensed child care providers served nearly 16,000 fewer children in 2016 than in 2006. Though birthrates in Minnesota dropped after the Great Recession, that’s a larger decline than can be explained by population change.
The loss of capacity among home-based providers is driving that decline. Minnesota had 30 percent fewer in-home licensed child care providers in 2016 than it did 10 years earlier. The same study found a modest increase in capacity in center-based child care statewide. But that growth occurred primarily in the Twin Cities and regional centers.
The dearth of center-based child care in Greater Minnesota is the prime reason Minnesota was rated the most afflicted with “child care deserts” among eight states examined by the Center for American Progress in 2016. The center defines a child care desert as a ZIP code with at least 30 children under age 5 and either no child care centers or so few that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces in centers. By that definition, 67 percent of Greater Minnesota qualified as a “desert.”
In Greater Minnesota communities, those numbers translate into trouble attracting and keeping workers with young children at a time when skilled labor is in short supply. Jon Radermacher, the Little Falls city administrator, experienced the problem personally when he was hired two years ago from Madison, Minn., only to discover that there was no licensed child care available for his then-infant son. His wife and child stayed behind in Madison for three months until a new provider opened in Little Falls — “making me one of the lucky ones,” Radermacher told reporters at a briefing by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“We have to start taking some measures to address this. This is an economic development issue,” Radermacher said. “If we’re going to attract young families, they need a safe place to take their kids.” Licensed care, which complies with state quality and safety regulations, is often the only care parents who are new to a community will trust, he added.
Gazelka and other legislators are right to take note. But they ought to be closer to agreeing on a remedy. Republicans such as Sen. Bill Weber of Luverne, whom Gazelka credited with raising the issue with him, say that the state’s regulatory burden is too heavy, pushing family child care providers out of business and discouraging others from starting.
DFLers note that today’s child care shortage was a predicted consequence of major cuts in state child care subsidies to working-poor parents in 2003. Despite the economic recovery since then, those cuts have never been fully restored. Last session, the Republican-controlled Legislature spurned DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for a subsidy increase large enough to make, on average, half of the licensed providers in the state affordable to subsidized families. Today’s subsidies are pegged to the prices charged by the lowest-cost 25 percent of providers.
In January 2017, a bipartisan legislative task force recommended a “both/and” solution to the child care shortage — more funding and less cumbersome regulation. Its recommendations didn’t go far last session. But Gazelka’s comment shows that the issue now has legislative leaders’ attention. Minnesotans should let their legislators know that this year they expect not just notice, but shortage-easing remedies.