No winners in Western Slope’s child care dilemma
Research, reports, studies, anecdotes point to nationwide need for more child care options
Editor’s note: This is the first of four stories from the Glenwood Springs Post Independent focusing on the challenges parents and guardians face in finding adequate child care in Garfield County. Part two focuses on stopgap measures and will publish online and in print Wednesday, part three focuses on challenges facing child care facilities and will publish Friday and part four focuses on potential solutions and will publish Monday, Feb. 28.
Insufficient funding, dwindling staff and disproportionate costs are driving America’s early childhood care and education into crisis.
In Garfield County, those challenges are exacerbated by the rising cost of living, said Katie Langenhuizen, the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition’s early childhood coordinator.
“Providers are paid way too little and undervalued, while parents are paying way too much,” explained Langenhuizen, a mother of two young children. “The reason is to have high-quality care, you need pretty low staff-to-child ratios, which is an expensive business to run. Nobody in that sphere is winning.”
In the context of this article, early childhood care and education refers to the care needs of children from birth to about 5 years old, at which point they are eligible for kindergarten.
A study published in 2021 by the U.S. Department of Treasury reported about one in every 110 U.S. workers — and about one in every 55 working women — are employed in the early childhood education and care sectors. Despite high entry requirements, such as education and licensing, child care providers in Colorado earn on average $27,000-38,000 a year, which is slightly above the national average of $24,230.
Colorado’s median annual income in 2019 was about $72,000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.
Many child care providers nationwide are struggling with burnout — largely a result of the pandemic — which has disproportionately impacted providers and parents alike.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the early childhood sector lost 3,700 workers nationwide in December at a time when most labor sectors experienced employee growth.
Even if potential staff were abundant throughout the Western Slope, space is sparse and real estate values continue to climb.
Data adapted from Colorado’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission Report cited 80% of the state’s counties have low licensed child care capacity for infants, and 63% of counties have low licensed capacity for toddlers (children ages 18-36 months). Garfield County’s licensed capacity for infants is about 8% of the county’s infant population, the commission reported. The licensed capacity in Garfield County can serve about 23% of the county’s toddler population.
“There is a big gap between what we have and what we need,” said Rebecca Romeyn, Garfield County Department of Human Resources child care manager. “This indicates there is a significant need for infrastructure such as increased wages, building space and affordable housing.”
College or preschool?
On the parent side, early care and education can cost a family nearly as much as a college education.
While the average cost for in-state tuition at a four-year institution in Colorado is about $17,000 a year, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) reported a family with an infant and a 4-year-old in full-time care could expect to pay about $27,000 annually, or about 33% of Colorado’s median annual income.
“High child care costs tend to hit most of the population at the worst time in their careers,” Langenhuizen said. “We tend to have children early on when we earn less and have less job stability. To top it off, monthly child care costs for many parents are higher than their mortgage.”
High costs and limited options force parents to make tough decisions. In 2020, about 2 million women left the national workforce, with about 50% reporting child care concerns as their reason for leaving, NWCCOG reported.
Workers who struggle with child care needs can experience significant impacts to their career, missing promotion opportunities, taking lower wages for schedule flexibility and reducing their hours below the point of being eligible for healthcare benefits, the Treasury reported.
Far from a reality
For many, the solution is putting children in unlicensed care, such as with a relative or neighbor.
While unlicensed options aren’t without merit, they can be riskier and less stable for children; whereas, some research points toward exponential benefits for children enrolled in high-quality, early care and education programs.
The Abecedarian Project, a decades-long study conducted in North Carolina from 1977-2017 with 120 economically disadvantaged families with infants, reported children in full-time early care were more likely to pursue higher education, have children later in life and retain employment.
When the report was completed in 2017, researchers calculated full-time child care in the 1970s would have cost about $19,000 if paid in 2017.
“About 60% of children in our region under the age of 5 are in informal care networks, because they can’t find spots in licensed child care centers,” Langenhuizen said.
While finding the right care options to meet parents’ needs is a challenge, the first step is ensuring high-quality options are available.
Langenhuizen said she didn’t have access to data indicating what the baseline need is per-capita for any region in the U.S., but if the data does exist, she said it would most likely be a pipedream in the Western Slope.
“We’re so far from that reality that we’re just trying to be better,” Langenhuizen said.
Available, affordable and high-quality child care benefits children, their parents and the economy at large, the U.S. Treasury Department reported.
A Treasury document published in 2021 highlighted research showing children who attend high-quality early childhood education programs, relative to similar children who cannot attend these programs, perform better on grade school tests, stay in school longer, experience lower rates of depression, have better physical health and have higher individual and household earnings.
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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