Licensed child care for infants is in such short supply in southwestern Minnesota that, after more than a yearlong search in a 40-mile radius, new parents in Montevideo gratefully grabbed the one available slot in Granite Falls, 16 miles away, this newspaper reported on Aug. 24.

An isolated or regional problem? No, say child care providers and advocates. The shortage of child care in Greater Minnesota is a symptom of a larger statewide issue termed a “horrible crisis” by Chad Dunkley of New Horizons Academy and an “epidemic” by Nancy Hylden, who represents MinneMinds, an early education advocacy coalition.

The issue: Licensed child care for children from infants through school age costs too much for families of modest means. And in places where families of modest means are the only population at hand, high-quality, center-based child care providers decline to enter the market or cannot stay in business. Last month’s closure of the highly rated Cherish the Children Learning Center, a program of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis, is a lamentable example of the latter.

Licensed child care in Minnesota has long been costly compared with that in other states, in part because of this state’s quality and safety requirements associated with licensure. But only in the past decade has licensed care been as far out of reach for working-poor families as it is today. That’s because the 2003 Legislature dramatically cut funding and tightened eligibility requirements for subsidies to low-income working families via the federal-state-county program called Basic Sliding Fee. Because of those cuts, the average number of families served by that program per month dropped from 12,500 in 2003 to 9,100 a year later; it’s projected at 9,573 this year.

In the years since 2003, state lawmakers have gained appreciation for the value of early education. They’ve beefed up family education, funded preschool scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds from lower-income families, and this year added a small quality bonus to the reimbursements to child care providers via Basic Sliding Fee. But this year saw only the second increase in that program’s reimbursement rate to providers in a decade. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Minnesota spent $35 million on Basic Sliding Fee subsidies; in 2002, it was $52 million.

At today’s funding level, thousands of income-eligible families aren’t being served. The waiting list for Basic Sliding Fee subsidies was at 6,679 families in June, down from what was believed to be a record high of 8,319 in January. What’s more, the subsidies don’t stretch to cover the full cost of child care. In 2012, Basic Sliding Fee’s maximum subsidies fully covered the prices charged by only about a third of the state’s licensed providers, compared with about three-fifths in 2004.

The consequences of Minnesota’s decadelong squeeze on child care subsidies are adverse for all concerned — including employers and taxpayers. When child care is unaffordable or unavailable, parents stay out of the workforce, welfare rolls increase and some parents decide to relocate, a Wilder Research study in northeastern Minnesota found.

When quality care is unavailable, children from learning-disadvantaged backgrounds start school behind and struggle to catch up. The consequences of inadequate early learning can be detrimental for a lifetime.

This fall, as Minnesotans mark the start of all-day, no-cost-to-the-parents kindergarten in every school district, this state’s elected leaders should be discussing with voters how best to make sure every kindergartner arrives ready for its lessons. Early learning scholarships for preschoolers, expanded to statewide reach last year, are an important piece of that strategy. But preschool ought to dovetail with quality child care for infants and toddlers, and ought to be followed by after-school and summer programs that keep children learning at an optimal level.

Basic Sliding Fee isn’t a perfect program. It needs reform so that children don’t lose care when their parents’ incomes rise. It ought to be restructured so that waiting lists don’t develop, as a majority of states have done. More can be done to use subsidy dollars as an incentive for providers to boost quality and to encourage high-quality programs to move into underserved markets. But the biggest flaw is that the program isn’t big enough. Candidates for governor and the House should reveal how they plan to mend that flaw.