Rachel Warden had her first child shortly after college. She’d gone to school for social services, but her career hadn’t yet taken off.
“I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a parent, but at the same time I wanted to go back to work,” Warden said. “I started looking into early childhood education and I found a home there.”
Both as a new mom and as a person entering the early childhood field, Warden quickly realized that finding and affording quality child care presented a serious challenge.
“I’m glad I found my passion and my joy [in early childhood education] but I don’t think that financially I could have afforded to work without the benefit of a child care discount from my employer,” Warden said.
Local child care needs go unmet
In Chittenden County, the report found 55 percent of infants likely to need care don’t have access to any regulated programs and 79 percent of infants likely to need care don’t have access to high-quality programs, defined as regulated programs with 4- or 5-star recognition levels under Vermont’s voluntary quality recognition and improvement system.
The findings were no surprise to Warden, who is the program director at the Williston Enrichment Center. She’s had to tell parents who’ve been calling this summer and looking for September infant care that those slots had been booked a year ago. Already, seven of the center’s eight infant slots for September of 2017 are booked as well.
“It’s so competitive and so hard to find child care, especially for infants. Last week, I was volunteering at an event in South Burlington and I had a young family come up to me and say, ‘No one told us we had to start looking for care when we were five weeks pregnant’,” Warden said.
Child care too costly for many
When parents are lucky enough to find an open spot, affordability often presents another barrier. Middle income families in Vermont with two working parents are spending an average of 28 to 40-percent of their household income on child care. And as Warden knows all too well, that money is not lining the pockets of child care workers — who make an average of less than $25,000 a year, often without benefits.
Warden, whose children are now 8 and 5 years old, said that even with her employee discount on child care, she and her husband struggled to make ends meet.
“When our youngest graduated to kindergarten, it was like an instant pay raise. We could finally pay down some of our debts,” Warden said. “Now we can start trying to save money for a down payment for a house.”
Financial factors have serious impacts on the availability and the quality of child care in Vermont. While many parents can’t afford the tuition, child care providers often struggle to stay in business because they can’t charge what it really costs to offer a quality program.
Low pay and lack of access to professional development opportunities contribute to high turnover of child care workers, which exacerbates the shortage of high-quality programs. The Vermont Department of Labor has projected that between 2012 and 2022, almost 70 percent of child care worker positions that become available in Vermont will be due to turnover. This puts child care in the top 10 occupations in the state with the highest number of openings, on average, per year.
“Child care workers are so emotionally invested in the job. When you are putting in your all every day for the children who are in your care and then going home and knowing that your paycheck isn’t going to go as far as you need it to – that’s a very stressful situation,” Warden said.
Running a quality program requires hiring and retaining nurturing caregivers who are educated in early learning and development, Warden said. Turnover makes it hard for programs to maintain and increase quality and also negatively impacts young children who have formed strong bonds with staff only to have to start over again, Warden said.
With about 90 percent of the brain developed by age 5, the experiences young children have in the early years lay the foundation for their future success in relationships, in school and in life.
“It’s important to maintain high standards in our field because that’s what the children deserve,” Warden said. “People coming into this career are more than babysitters. We’re not looking at just what this day looks like, we’re looking at what we do to provide a strong foundation for each and every child that’s in our care for years to come.”
State asking for input
According to the Census, more than 70 percent of Vermont children under the age of six live in families where all available parents are in the labor force. For these families, balancing work and life means figuring out how young children will be cared for during work hours. Vermont’s shortage of high-quality, affordable child care has negative consequences not only for families with young children but also for Vermont’s economy. Businesses need a stable and focused workforce to thrive and it’s hard to attract new skilled workers to Vermont when many of them are young families that need access to affordable, high-quality child care.
For all of these reasons, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care
is looking at Vermont’s care programs as a whole. The commission—which includes business representatives, policymakers, parents and child care providers—will issue a report in November that will recommend specific strategies to support high-quality, affordable child care in Vermont.
In July, the Commission held five public forums to hear from the public about accessing high-quality child care, the responsibilities of Vermonters to help achieve that and how to make access more affordable. The commission also created an online survey, available at surveymonkey.com/r/FZL8PTG
. The deadline for the public to complete the online survey is Sept. 15.
Nicole Haley is the communications manager at Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide public education campaign that aims to raise understanding of the importance of the earliest years in the lives of Vermont’s children. Let’s Grow Kids is working with Vermont communities, organizations, businesses and individuals to create positive, lasting change that will allow all of our children to succeed in life. Let’s Grow Kids is an initiative of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children with support from the A.D. Henderson Foundation and the Turrell Fund.