Washington’s child care crisis

Eighty-six percent of San Juan County’s demand for child care is met by nearby supply — the highest percentage in the state. According to a new report from the Washington Department of Commerce, more than a half-million children statewide are without child care, resulting in a crisis.

“The supply of quality, affordable child care has not met the needs of our working families for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse as some child care programs have had to make the financial decision to close their doors,” Deeann Burtch Puffert, chief executive officer for Child Care Aware of Washington, said in a press release. “Everyone at Child Care Aware of [Washington] is working to help keep programs that want to stay open, stay open, and connect families to child care near them.”

CCAW is a nonprofit that connects families to local licensed child care and early learning programs and gives support to providers.

The study released by the Department of Commerce on Aug. 25 was commissioned by the state’s Child Care Collaborative Task Force. Results include information from a statewide survey of more than 1,500 parents with children age 0-12. The parents’ survey was performed in mid-April. Study authors noted the parents’ responses can “cautiously be considered to reflect pre-pandemic conditions.”

The pandemic has reduced the availability of the state’s already limited child care providers because some have to resort to closing their doors due to financial difficulty, according to the report. Child care providers may not have enough children to care for as some working parents are keeping their children home and some for fear of the virus or actual exposure to it. According to the study, San Juan County’s child care capacity was reduced by 47.06 percent in June compared to February.

“Since March, up to 24 percent of Washington’s licensed child care programs have closed. Currently, 18 percent of our state’s child care programs are closed and not serving children,” according to CCAW. “Now, as most school districts have moved to remote-learning only, parents are scrambling to create child care plans for their school-age children, but there are even fewer options than there were before COVID-19.”

On top of the difficulty of finding child care for children under 12, families also face an additional challenge: paying for said care.

“Child care access and affordability are significant challenges, affecting parents’ job prospects, productivity and career decisions, with the impact even greater for Black and Native American parents,” wrote Commerce Director Lisa Brown in a press release. “Clearly, a dramatic investment in child care is needed for robust, equitable economic recovery in Washington state.”

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests child care should cost 7 percent of the median family income, statewide costs far exceed that.

In San Juan County, the study found that a single mother who works full-time making the median income of $33,866, would need to spend 42-65 percent of her income on child care, depending on the provider and age of child.

The islands’ median family income for a two-parent household, both working full-time, was $96,777 and a family would expect to spend 13-20 percent of its income on child care.

“Child care is unaffordable for most middle and lower-income working families. Benefit ‘cliffs’ make it so that getting a small raise often results in astronomical, and unaffordable, increases in child care costs for a family,” wrote Ross Hunter, secretary of Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary in a press release. “Not only does this often leave kids in unstable arrangements, it locks their parents into low-wage, unstable jobs.”

According to CCAW, nearly half of the state’s licensed child care providers have reported they are at risk of closing permanently due to the financial effects of the pandemic.

“The loss of these high-quality programs would significantly hurt Washington’s economy because working parents cannot work when they do not have child care for their children,” according to CCAW.

Washington’s child care crisis cost employers $2.08 billion in direct costs in 2017 — and that was prior to the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has added stress and uncertainty to what the industry assessment revealed was already a fragile child care system,” Child Care Collaborative Task Force tri-chair Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy for Child Care Aware of Washington, said. “Investments are needed to keep our child care system operating. Investments in the child care industry are investments in all other industries because child care supports all employers.”

To view the report, visit https://www.commerce.wa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Child-Care-Collaborative-Task-Force-Industry-Assessment-Report.pdf.