County grapples with lack of affordable childcare

Rising costs of services, decreasing resources create shortages

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When Heather Dries was first looking for childcare, she experienced much anxiety over where to take her kids, Macie-Sue and Marshall. Finding a spot in a safe, affordable center in the county proved difficult.

“When I had [my daughter], I was completely stressed about getting daycare for my son,” she said. “I didn’t know who I could trust.”

Dries, a student at Tompkins Cortland Community College, considered herself lucky when a spot opened up at the childcare center on campus, Arthur Kuckes Childcare Center.

“They were full when we started looking, and then, all of the sudden, they had a spot open and I was able to get them in here,” she said. “It was fantastic, ... and they truly love my children.”

Dries’s story is a mostly happy one, but her initial anxiety is much like what many parents in the county grapple with when trying to find childcare for their children due to the lack of childcare and affordable childcare in the county. And as those involved in the issue can attest, solving this issue won’t be an easy fix.

Need

Those interviewed for this story outlined two main problems with the state of childcare in the county – there isn’t enough to meet demand, and families are spending too much on it.

Sue Dale-Hall, chief executive officer of the Child Development Council, said people in the median household income range (about $50,000) currently have to spend about 20% of their income on childcare due to the growing costs, creating a growing gap between those that can and can’t afford childcare in the county.

Casey Goodwin, director of Arthur Kuckes Childcare Center, added that that disparity perpetuates itself.

“A lot of families, they work, but their whole entire paycheck goes to childcare, and then it’s a cycle that keeps happening,” Goodwin said.

But that high cost, Jennifer Tavares, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, stressed, isn’t making childcare centers rich. Instead, providing childcare is more expensive now than in years past.

How did we get here?

Dale-Hall said the most substantial reason childcare is scarce and costly is because of increased regulations, beginning in 2006 with the Child and Family Services Improvement Act. The changes established by the law helped to positively increase quality of care for children, but that also made it more costly and harder to meet the requirements, she said.

One recent requirement change is an increased number of background checks. Historically, childcare centers performed a few background checks in different areas and allowed the hiree to work supervised before the results came in.

Dale-Hall said regulations have changed that, and childcare centers now have to perform far more background checks and cannot allow that person to work until they’re completely cleared. As beneficial as that is for the children, it makes the system more difficult to work under.

“It’s going to slow things down, and we don’t need that because, ... people can find jobs other places where they can get started right away,” Dale-Hall said.

Regulations also apply to childcare workers, so those who actively work with children are required to have more education and training than ever before, said Sherri Koski, director of the Ithaca Community Childcare Center (IC3).

“With the rising cost of minimum wage and the increase of regulations and requirements for training and education, those costs are going up at a much higher rate than we can increase cost of childcare or tuition,” Koski said.

Effects

All sources agreed that good-quality childcare makes a big difference for the child and family but also beyond.

“We know now that that early support is the most important time in terms of a child’s development, their social and emotional development and their brain development, and it gets kids ready for school, for life, for tomorrow,” Dale-Hall said.

With good childcare, children learn about what good relationships look like, how to socialize, how to stretch their imagination and how to approach problems effectively – all skills that apply later in life, Dale-Hall said.

And if parents have proper childcare, they can be more effective workers, Koski said.

“If employees are happy with where their children are, they’re going to go to work and they’re going to be much more productive,” she said.

The opposite of that is what happens in our current system when parents can’t afford or don’t have access to childcare. Tavares said that there is a large adult population in Tompkins County who aren’t working nor looking for work, and she said that can likely be attributed to parents having one spouse stay home and not work in order to care for the child.

“The cost of childcare versus what they could go out and earn in a job doesn’t make it a strong enough incentive to put their children into childcare and to go out to work, but also, if there’s not enough slots or if they wouldn’t be able to find childcare anyway, they’re not left with a lot of choices,” Tavares said.

Dale-Hall said she’s seen it get far worse than that, too. Parents will switch shifts so there’s always someone at home with the child, use a patchwork of relatives and friends to watch their child or even resort to unregulated or illegal childcare.

“They’re uncertain and they’re desperate, and that’s unfortunate because that doesn’t allow them to really pick what’s the right environment for their child,” Dale-Hall said.

And the effects go beyond the family. Tavares said that, when childcare is too expensive, families are spending money on childcare that could’ve gone to other areas in the economy, harming other businesses and services in the county.

Current services and resources

To provide a sense of what’s available for families, let’s look at some examples of providers and services in the county.

The Child Development Council (CDC) serves county families, providing referral services and support agents but no childcare centers of its own. The CDC provides training for childcare providers and helps connect parents to providers and groups.

The TC3 Childcare Center is a not-for-profit childcare facility on campus that specializes in childcare for TC3 students, though it also serves community members. Goodwin said the center reserves half of its spots for students to provide students with the resources they need to succeed.

The center was completed in 2018, allowing an expansion of services from its old facility on campus. The Childcare Center went from two to six classrooms, adding two infant classrooms, a toddler classroom and a preschool classroom.

“There was a lot of students going to classes with their children,” Goodwin said. “So, we knew that we need to expand to be able to reduce the number of children that were going to classes and be able to have them in a safe learning environment.”

IC3, currently located at 579 Warren Rd. in Ithaca, serves families both within and outside Tompkins County.

Children at IC3 stay with the same teachers and core group from infancy to pre-K, which Koski said helps to support emotional development, bonding and attachment. There are also two teachers in every classroom that have equal responsibility and are co-teachers together, in contrast to the usual model of a teacher, teacher’s assistant and teacher’s aide.

“That leads to better co-teaching relationships and ultimately better outcomes for children,” Koski said.

Like TC3, IC3 is undergoing its own expansion, set to be complete in 2021. Once complete, IC3 will have an added 7,375 square feet of space to provide a permanent place for its afterschool program and summer camp.

Cornell University also provides resources to help students and employees locate, access and fund child care, said Michelle Artibee, associate director of human resources at Cornell.

The Cornell Child Care Center serves over 165 children of Cornell students, staff and faculty and offers both full and part-time schedules.

“Cornell and Bright Horizons work closely to limit fee increases as much as possible while also maintaining a high quality program,” Artibee said.

In addition to providers, there are financial assistance resources for families.

The CDC provides a few sources of funding, including the Emergency Scholarship for families who experience a crisis. There are also childcare subsidies available at the local Department of Social Services to assist parents who are working or enrolled in schooling.

There are federal resources available for families, said Brian Zapf, director of Alternatives Federal Credit Union’s Free Tax Preparation Program. The Child & Dependent Care Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit and Federal Child Tax Credit and Empire State Child Credit are federal and state grants available to parents, with different requirements.

Zapf said these credits are often confusing for parents, and it doesn’t always provide the sort of assistance most parents need.

“People need money to live on, month to month, week to week, so having this huge pay day once a year is not the best system to actually provide support for families, but it’s what we have because it’s simple to administer,” Zapf said.

Despite the credits’ shortcomings, Zapf said it can provide some significant reimbursement for families, which is why he and others at Alternatives offer the Free Tax Preparation Program. Under this program, parents, Alternatives member or not, can get free guidance on how to file their taxes, including navigating through the credits listed.

Challenges and controversy

The need is clear, but getting there is another story. One of the biggest challenges is a problem already discussed – cost.

Dale-Hall said one of the cost challenges she’s seen that isn’t often talked about is that the current system can discourage workplace and wage advancement. She said that parents on the lowest end of the income spectrum can access childcare subsidies, but when their income reaches 200% of the federal poverty rate and one penny more, they lose those subsidies, and childcare is considerably more expensive.

“We have people who say to us, ‘I can’t take a raise, because then, I can’t afford my childcare anymore, and I can’t afford to work,’ and it shouldn’t be that way,” Dale-Hall said.

Another problem Dale-Hall outlined was some misconceptions about what childcare should be.

“The biggest one is that people think it’s just caring for kids – it’s just babysitting – and that’s the biggest detriment to the system,” she said.

That lack of understanding and respect of childcare providers means they’re not paid as much as they should be and are generally undervalued. Dale-Hall said we’re starting to see some positive change in this area, but there’s still some ways to go.

Another problem is that childcare is traditionally seen as the parents’ problem, which Dale-Hall said puts too much burden on the parents.

Solutions and strategies

Overcoming the challenges and making the state of childcare better in the county is a difficult task, but it’s one many have already taken up.

Koski said she’d like to see more support from the business community and more employer-provided childcare. Dale-Hall said that the childcare system should be open to all, and an effective strategy needs to look at how childcare is paid for, who’s paying it and what can be done about it.

“It’s a multi-pronged process, and we have to address it from that perspective,” Dale-Hall said.

Tavares said one way to get there could be increased access to universal pre-K.

“That’s an entire year’s worth of childcare, full-time childcare expenses, that moderate-income families might not have to bare,” Tavares said.

Artibee said she’d like to see more childcare services available at nontraditional hours to accommodate different kinds of work schedules for parents.

“It is important that there are a variety of options to support nontraditional work schedules, part-time needs, various cost levels, etc.,” she said.

All sources agreed that whatever the solution, it is going to take work from many areas, organizations and governments.

“We have a pretty powerful community, and I think if we exert the energy into this that we would probably come up with some unique solution that, independently, we’re not thinking of,” Koski said.

Sources interviewed encouraged concerned citizens to get involved, reach out to local government, talk to employers about childcare needs, volunteer and donate to local childcare providers and services.

Conclusion

Quality childcare has far-reaching effects on everything from the economy to the development of the child, and it’s a goal many are currently striving for.

“Almost every meeting I go to, we hear about affordable housing and affordable childcare,” Koski said. “I would love there to be a point where families don’t have to get on a waiting list as soon as they conceive because they’re panicking that they might not have care when they need it.”

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