The need for high-quality, affordable child care in Kandiyohi County is an issue gaining a lot of attention. According to a potential need analysis from First Children’s Finance, there is a shortage of at least 776 child care slots across the county.
“Not having enough safe, affordable and accessible child care is a growing barrier to economic development in west central Minnesota, including right here in Kandiyohi County,” said Connie Schmoll, from the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. “Businesses struggle to find workers because employees and potential employees can’t find child care.”
In an effort to start finding solutions to this growing problem, the EDC made child care one of its 2018 priorities and worked in concert with the United Community Action Partnership to apply for the Rural Child Care Innovation Program.
Kandiyohi County was selected to participate in the 18-month program, which is funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and is an initiative of First Children’s Finance, a nonprofit which works to increase early child care and education availability, affordability and quality by providing financial and business-development assistance and building partnerships.
As part of the program, Kandiyohi County will receive technical assistance to complete research and begin finding solutions to the lack of child care.
A community conversation was conducted Nov. 28 in Willmar to present an overview of the research collected, as well as to begin brainstorming possible ideas to bring more child care to the area.
“Community conversation is an important step to find local solutions for the current situation,” Schmoll said during the meeting.
Jessica Beyer, business development manager at First Children’s Finance, discussed the data, most of it compiled from a survey sent out to hundreds of people interested and concerned about child care in the area. Approximately 1,200 responses were returned.
“You guys got the gold star,” Beyer said. “Because you gave the most responses we have ever had. There is a lot of good information.”
While child care is important for families, it is also a priority for communities.
“Child care really does matter to community vitality,” Beyer said. “Child care prepares tomorrow’s workforce.”
The vast majority of respondents said child care availability in the county is either poor or very poor.
“It is not just hearsay. It is, in fact, a challenge for parents,” Beyer said.
Fifty percent of respondents even said they plan when or if they will have another child partially on whether there is an opening at a provider.
When looking for child care, the top three priorities for families are a safe and healthy environment, licensure from the Department of Human Services and an education curriculum.
“We know what parents are really looking for,” Beyer said.
Kandiyohi County has many high-quality programs, with 20 percent of the licensed programs being star rated by Parent Aware, higher than the state average of 17 percent.
Parent Aware is a quality rating and improvement system in Minnesota which helps families find quality child care and early education. Star ratings are earned by providers participating in Parent Aware and submitting a quality documentation portfolio to the organization.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services leads Parent Aware in coordination with the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health.
With quality comes cost. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents said the reason they are not enrolled in a paid child care program is because of the costs. On average, child care centers in the 75th percentile of cost, for example, charge $229 a week for infant care, while a family provider charges about $140 per week. Infant care is usually the most expensive, according to the survey.
“It is very expensive for parents to afford programs,” Beyer said.
On the provider side, it is very expensive to run a program. Beyer said most home providers make less than $8 an hour after expenses are paid.
“Providers go into it because they love children, not because they want to make a lot of money,” Beyer said.
The child care survey also looked at how child care impacts employment and economic development. Just over a third of survey respondents said they declined a job or left the workforce completely due to the lack of child care. Other problems include tardiness, inability to work overtime and work absenteeism.
“As an employer, there is a challenge there,” Beyer said.
Following the data presentation, the meeting attendees broke into smaller groups to come up with possible ideas and solutions.
“We are trying to get at actual projects the community can do on the local level,” Beyer said.
Over the next several weeks, the core leadership team for the Kandiyohi County program will be working to create a community solution action plan and then implement that plan over the next couple of years.
“To move the plan from a piece of paper to actual implementation, because that is what will make it or break it,” Beyer said. “Otherwise it is a beautiful report that is going to sit and collect dust. We don’t want that.”
Article writen by Shelby Lindrud for the West Central Tribune.