JAMESTOWN, N.D. — A Jamestown mother who needed child care for her 2-year-old twins in 2018 said the expense of child care is a “heavy lift” for families in need of that service.
Jessica Edland's sister ran a child care business in Dickinson, North Dakota, and Edland said people who run child care programs aren’t making tons of money.
In May 2018, she found a child care provider through the Child Care Aware website but hired an in-house nanny for two months while she was waiting to get her twins into the provider.
In 2020, the Edlands decided to send their twins to the Two Rivers Activity Center’s OnTRAC Learning Center, which she said costs $1,200 a month for both children. Rates for OnTRAC Learning Center are $600 a month per child for a TRAC member and $700 a month per child for a nonmember, according to TRAC's website.
“We love TRAC. We just have to figure out how to afford it, with two of them especially,” Edland said. “Not that TRAC is making a ton of money off of preschool.”
The Edlands are one of many families in North Dakota that need to budget for child care.
North Dakota KIDS COUNT released a report that outlines how North Dakota can build a better child care system. The report, which is called “A modern economy depends on child care. North Dakota can make it affordable and accessible,” looks at the access, quality and affordability of child care.
Xanna Burg, coordinator with North Dakota KIDS COUNT, said highlights from the report findings for North Dakota include:
The current supply of child care and early education meets 88% of demand, however, 14 counties are still below 60% of demand.
Areas with the greatest shortage of child care include options that offer nontraditional hours and care for school-age children. Eight counties experience a low supply of child care or early education and either high poverty or unemployment.
Child care is as expensive as in-state tuition at a public university.
Child care workers earn $24,150 per year if working full time, barely hovering above the poverty level for a family of three.
North Dakota KIDS COUNT is a statewide resource of data on the well-being of children in North Dakota, according to its website. The website says North Dakota KIDS COUNT seeks to enrich local and state discussions concerning ways to secure a better future for all children by providing policymakers and citizens with benchmarks of child well-being.
Affordability of child care and worker wages
Burg said child care businesses largely operate on parent tuition. The report states families paid between $7,600 and $9,500 on average for child care in 2020, which means a household making $67,400 a year spends between 11% to 14% of its income on infant child care.
One way child care can become more affordable is to make parents aware of the Child Care Assistance Program through the North Dakota Department of Human Services that helps eligible families pay for child care while they work or attend school or training, she said. She said the program can be expanded to reach families that are eligible and not participating and are just above the current cutoff for child care assistance.
“We know there are about 5,000 children that do participate and there are at least 21,000 that would be eligible based on their families' income,” Burg said.
Wages for child care workers remain low because parents struggle to pay the cost of child care, she said. The report says the median wage in 2020 in North Dakota was $11.61 per hour.
“In thinking about how do we support child care businesses, to be able to get them workers adequate wages without charging parents more tuition for adequate child care, really we are talking about better investment in child care,” Burg said.
In the short term, Burg said funds from the American Rescue Plan Act could be used to offer bonuses and stipends to child care workers to increase the overall pay and to help recruit and retain those workers. The report states that North Dakota received $130 million in federal relief money in 2020 and 2021 to support child care and early childhood education, including $76 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The report says increasing pay for child care workers and ensuring professional development opportunities such as programs or scholarships are within reach to support training for workers. Burg said funding can also be used to provide a stipend to child care workers that increases with progressive experience and education.
To make child care more affordable, the report recommends implementing a shared services model statewide to make it easier for businesses to coordinate common services such as accounting, insurance, employee benefits and a substitute pool, which help small child care businesses tap into pooled resources at a lower cost than obtaining them on their own.
“I would just really encourage our leadership in the state to take some of that recovery act money and invest in child care, child care access, child care quality and really look at the impact that could have,” Edland said. “If we want people to go back to work, we want our kids in high-quality child care.”
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said the North Dakota Legislature passed HB1416, which consolidated all child care and preschool and 4-year-old early childhood education into one agency into the North Dakota Department of Human Services called the Early Childhood Division.
“By consolidating them they have a one-stop agency to go to rather than face a mix of applications for grants and programs,” he said.
The Legislature also passed HB1466, which provides grant funding for 4-year-old early childhood programs in schools, Wanzek said.
He said the state received more than $100 million in federal funding and that grants are available for families seeking child care and for providers to improve their programs.
“Even the business world knows there is a strong need for employees and a lot of the young people we need to employ are also parents, so we are trying to help them in taking care of their children and allowing them to make a living for their family,” he said.
14 counties meet less than the demand
The report says 14 counties — Benson, Dunn, Eddy, Kidder, McKenzie, McLean, Morton, Oliver, Pembina, Renville, Sheridan, Sioux, Slope and Williams — meet less than 60% of the demand for working families.
“It’s not easy to be a child care provider and make ends meet and stay open long term,” Burg said. “Some of these counties, they are struggling with how do I start a child care business and recruit enough workers and pay them well that they can stick around long enough in order to have enough spots in order to meet the demand.”
Neighboring counties with a supply that exceeds the demand may help supplement the shortfall in some areas, but it also means families travel to find child care, the report states.
Kidder County is one county that experiences a low supply of child care or early education and high poverty, the report states. The report says Kidder County could benefit from additional child care supply to ensure families have access to care to return to work.
In some of the 14 counties, child care providers struggle with recruiting workers and paying employees well enough that they stick around for a longer period of time in order to have enough spots to meet the demand, Burg said.
“It takes more money to provide higher quality care,” she said. “That is really what we are seeing in some of these counties that have less supply to meet the demand.”
The report states to prioritize stabilization grants to areas with the most significant child care shortage that include:
Providers in areas that fall short of the current demand, particularly those that also have high poverty or unemployment rates.
Providers that serve historically marginalized communities, including children of color and children with special needs.
Providers that offer nontraditional hours of service.
Providers that serve school-age children.
The report also calls for providing startup or capacity grants to support new and existing providers with the ability to expand their capacity in areas with low child care supply.
Wanzek said startup grants are available to recently licensed or soon-to-be licensed early childhood programs. Grants may also be available to programs that are expanding their child care license capacity.
He said stabilization grants are also available to support financial operations to help ensure access to child care with special attention to underserved areas, infants and toddlers and care during nontraditional hours.
For more information on available grants, visit www.nd.gov/dhs/services/earlychildhood/ec-grants.html.