The University of Minnesota’s decision to close its on-campus child care is a great example of the perfect storm we have brewing in Minnesota right now.
Parents with young children need child care in order to work. They want that child care to be high quality so their children can grow and thrive; the first years of life are critical for child development and a solid early foundation is essential for lifelong learning.
But finding quality, convenient child care is often hard to do, and many child care programs have long waiting lists, particularly in Greater Minnesota or for infant care.
Child care is expensive; high quality child care is even more expensive. Many parents’ child care bill every month is as much as their rent or mortgage payment. And yet, child care teachers are among the lowest-paid professionals. The median hourly wage of a child care worker in Minnesota in 2015 was just $10.81.
At the University of Minnesota child care, all of the full-time teachers have degrees and teaching certificates and licenses. They are paid slightly more than the median wage: current salaries for assistant teachers and teachers ranges from around $15 to $18 an hour.
No one is getting rich in this business. And even at these low wages, the university has to subsidize the costs of the programs because it is still more than parents can afford to pay.
The university says it is losing $500,000 to $600,000 a year on the child care program. At the state level, early childhood providers make so little money that many of them qualify for government assistance for the poor. Minnesota taxpayers spend $43 million per year in safety net benefits like food stamps and public assistance for early childhood workers. Our early childhood teachers are the working poor.
Minnesota has very high maternal labor force participation. Businesses from the corner grocery to Medtronic to the University of Minnesota need child care in order for them to have employees. There are approximately 43,000 child care workers in Minnesota. This is not enough to meet the demand.
The Center for American Progress has analyzed the availability of child care in Minnesota and found that many parts of Minnesota are “child care deserts” — a ZIP code with at least 30 children under the age of 5 and either no child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many children under age 5 as there are spaces.
Fully two-thirds of the ZIP codes in Minneapolis and St. Paul are child care deserts, and a staggering 84 percent of rural Minnesotans live in child care deserts.
We need more people to go into the early childhood profession, but with such low wages, students are hard-pressed to take on substantial student debt only to graduate to a job with poverty level wages. Those who think it will be easy for the parents who had their children at the university to find another child care program are likely wrong.
So who suffers in this perfect storm? We all do. The children, the parents, the K-12 education system, higher education, the business community and taxpayers. Minnesota’s children are a public good. They are our workers of the future. Children who have high-quality early childhood experiences are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, to be reading by third grade and to graduate from high school. The economic vitality of this state depends on the availability of high-quality child care.
This struggle is being played out in communities all over Minnesota. We desperately need more teachers with early childhood degrees, more Head Start slots, more high-quality centers, more licensed family homes, more lab schools in every corner of the state, more support for our teachers and parents, and more awareness that investing in young children is the smartest thing we can do.
Nancy Jost, of Fergus Falls, is director of early learning for the West Central Initiative.