Finding a solution to the childcare crisis in Washington

Feb 20, 2024, 4:30 AM | Updated: 11:36 am

Image: Childcare in the state of Washington is at a crossroads....

Childcare in the state of Washington is at a crossroads. (Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

There is a lack of affordable, high-quality child care in the state of Washington. KIRO Newsradio took an in-depth look at why, and what can be done about it.

On the playground outside of Seattle’s Decatur Elementary, the chain of a tetherball rattles.

“Hey guys, how’s it going? What are we playing, today?” asks a childcare worker.

“Tetherball!” says a breathless 8-year-old as he slaps the ball, sending it soaring.

He and dozens of other children are playing at an after-school program operated by Kids Co. These kinds of childcare services are in high demand.

“Without this childcare, I couldn’t do my job. Neither me nor my husband. It’s needed,” said a mother who was picking up her child.

She said she was fortunate. She knows of other families that are struggling to find childcare.

“Just not being able to get into care. Waitlists are really long. There’s just a real scarcity.”

Kids Co. founder and CEO Susan Brown nodded her head.

“The data that we’ve looked at basically shows statewide there’s only about 25% of the need for care is met,” Brown said.

Cheryl Smith from the Washington State Department of Commerce noted that in some parts of Washington, the lack of availability is so significant, “we call them childcare deserts,” she said.

Money plays a major role in the success, or lack thereof, of childcare

Smith served on the Child Care Collaborative Task Force that was set up by the Washington State Legislature in 2018 to study the childcare sector. The task force found one of the major contributors to a lack of child care came down to a hard financial truth: it’s not a very lucrative business to get into.

“Childcare providers are not paid very well,” Smith said.

Brown confirmed that, noting the average wage for a childcare worker in Seattle is about $20 per hour.

The minimum wage in Seattle is just under $20 per hour.

Brown says she has had childcare workers resign to take better-paying jobs.

Jessica Heavner would like to see her childcare provider paid more.

“If they’re not taken care of, how are they going to take care of my kids?” she said.

But asking parents like Heavner to pay more out of pocket would be a heavy lift.

In Washington, the average monthly price of full-time child care is more than $1,044 per child. Much of that is due to inflation. Providers say they pay more for everything from rent and utilities to snacks and supplies.

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As a low-income wage earner, Heavner said she’s fortunate to qualify for state assistance for child care.

She said that when all three of her children required childcare, the bill totaled $3,000 per month. “And then you add in my mortgage. I wasn’t bringing enough home to do that.”

Washington State subsidizes childcare for families who make less than 60 percent of the state’s median income, so a family making less than about $54,000 per year would qualify.

That leaves middle-class families scrambling to cover childcare costs on their own or look at other options.

Rae Alva said she and her husband worked different shifts after their first child was born.

“He would work the night shift and I would work the morning (shift) and we would cross over for an hour, and- that was it. That’s when we would see each other,” Alva said.

“It’s very, very difficult to maintain a partnership – a relationship – and a functional parenting style when you don’t see your partner.”

Corporate solutions for childcare

She said her fortune changed when she began working at Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream.

Founder and CEO Molly Moon Neitzel said she realized a lack of childcare was keeping potential employees out of the workforce.

“So we provide a childcare benefit at Molly Moon’s to every employee who has a child under kindergarten age that is $1,000 a month extra, on top of your paycheck to go toward childcare,” Neitzel said.

The company also offers $350 a month for families with children six years old and older.

The childcare benefit is so significant that Alva said she and her husband decided to complete their family.

“I’m six months pregnant, right now,” she said, smiling.

“One of the biggest reasons why I felt we were able to take this next step is because of the childcare benefit that Molly’s offering us.”

Amy Anderson of the Association of Washington Business also served on the state’s childcare task force. When she traveled across Washington to meet with businesses, she said she discovered childcareis  becoming a bigger concern for employers.

“We have a lack of workforce,” Anderson said. “We do have families who aren’t able to go back to work or go to school to training programs because they cannot access childcare.”

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But Anderson added she also found there’s no one solution.

She said, for instance, an area with many swing-shift workers would need childcare at untraditional hours. Agricultural communities would see a higher demand for childcare at certain times of the year.

Neitzel admits that although covering childcare costs has made her workers more reliable and loyal, it’s still not easy.

“It’s really hard, and not every business can afford to prioritize a childcare stipend for their workers,” Neitzel said. “Honestly, we shouldn’t have to in the private sector.”

Should government or businesses fund childcare?

When asked why she was so insistent that the government — not businesses — should fund child care Neitzel offered this response:

“Because the care economy is just as important a piece of infrastructure,” Neitzel said. “The government understands it’s very important to provide roads that cars can drive on to get to work, and childcare is also a thing that makes it so that workers can get to work.”

Neitzel mentioned countries like Finland and Denmark, where governments shoulder a significant portion of childcare costs.

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In the U.S., the federal government increased childcare funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has ended. Congress has not stepped up to replace it.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, has issued a warning about what happens if it doesn’t get replaced.

“We are going to lose jobs. We’re going to lose workers, and our economy is going to continue to lose billions more in lost wages in revenue and growth,” Murray said.

Lawmakers are looking for solutions

While there is no current plan for the state of Washington to fully pay for childcare, lawmakers are looking to expand subsidies.

Stephan Blanford, Ph.D. and executive director of the advocacy group Children’s Alliance said the new state capital gains tax will help.

“It was passed in 2021 as part of the Fair Start for Kids (Act) that is driving about a billion dollars into the childcare sector, here in Washington,” Blanford said.

That funding also goes into K-12 schools, so Blanford calls the money more of a down payment than a fix.

There’s already an initiative heading to the November ballot, seeking to repeal it.

But after years of studies, Smith’s task force concluded the childcare system as it stands is not sustainable and that providers and their workers need help from the state.

“Our recommendation is for publicly fund wage supplements and benefits to childcare workers because of the public good,” Smith said.

Paul Guppy, vice president of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, offered a different perspective.

“Is it a jobs program, or is it for providing childcare?” Guppy asked.

Guppy believes the price of childcare can be lowered, and the incentive and pay to provide that care increased, in a couple of ways. First, the red tape needs to be reduced.

“The requirements to work in the childcare field from a licensing standpoint are astronomical compared to what the compensation might be,” Brown notes.

Regulations may work, but there already are many

Many regulations appear to make sense, such as limiting the number of children each adult is watching.

But there are no  fewer than 100 categories of state rules and regulations for childcare providers, including five pages of fine print alone on staff requirements.

If streamlining the rules would keep more childcare centers in business, Guppy suggests tax breaks might make them more affordable.

“If you offer a tax reduction for providing daycare services, that’s the best way to lower the costs.”

Guppy also supports offering a tax credit — or reduction — to families to help them pay for childcare.

The Washington Policy Center doesn’t support taxes to fund childcare programs and it opposes the capital gains tax.

After five years of studying whether childcare should be supported through government subsidies, tax breaks, employer benefits or parent pocketbooks, Smith came to a notable conclusion.

“It’s a more complex story than what you’ve been told,” Smith said.

Yet, Brown says the benefits are clear.

“The opportunity for social and emotional development in a childcare setting — birth, all the way through fifth grade — you can’t put a price on it,” Brown said. “We need it, we depend on it and kids deserve it.”

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of her stories here. Follow Heather on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Finding a solution to the childcare crisis in Washington