Utah meets only a third of families’ child care needs, report says

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tracy Gruber, director of the Office of Child Care at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, speaks with Dianne Meppen, left, at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute's "Newsmaker Breakfast" on March 11 in Salt Lake City.

Utah’s current system is only meeting about a third of the need for child care in the state, a new report shows.

To try to fill this “significant gap,” Utah needs to add 274 licensed centers and 1,258 licensed home programs, according to the report released earlier this month from the state’s Office of Child Care.

The gap is an economic and infrastructure issue, said Tracy Gruber, the office’s director. Child care “has to be treated like schools and roads and water,” she said. “… Because if that’s not in place in our communities, families can’t work. If they can’t work, that impacts our state’s economy, and it impacts our family economy.”

During the coronavirus outbreak, child care programs are seeing their enrollment drop as more families stay home. But generally, in Utah, 54% of children under the age of 6 are living in families that require child care in addition to their parents.

That’s a total of 153,945 children. In February 2020, the state had the capacity to care for 55,463 children under 6 years old, according to the report. So while child care needs and capacities vary throughout Utah, the overall gap for regulated care is at 65%

To try to address affordability and access problems that Utah families face, the report suggests that employers include child care expenses in employee benefit packages and establish child care collaboratives with high-quality providers.

It also recommends incorporating the building of child care facilities into long-term planning and housing developments. To help with affordability issues, the state could expand eligibility for child care subsidies, among other steps, it adds.

It’s unclear how long it could take to fix this, Gruber said. If business leaders start thinking about and working on child care, “the timeline could be shorter.” But if only the same people who have already been working on this topic continue, “it’s going to take a lot longer,” she said.

In some parts of the state, there are no licensed child care center providers, she noted. Grand County has the highest rate of need, at 74%, while Daggett County has the lowest, at 32%, the report shows.

In the report, the assumption is “that access to a child care provider should be no more than 3.5 miles in urban counties and no more than 10 miles in rural communities.” The county with the largest distance gap is Salt Lake.

Some areas have waiting lists, and it’s especially hard to find child care for infants because there’s a high demand and not all programs provide infant care. Infant care is also the most expensive. Between 2015 and 2017, the median rate increased roughly 13% for infants to $9,120 a year, according to the report.

One reason why quality child care has become more expensive is because it’s a “highly-regulated industry,” Gruber said. “... It has to be. We’re talking about the safety of our children.”

Another reason is that child care is no longer simply considered “babysitting, Gruber said. Instead, programs are focused on preparing children for kindergarten, which requires more trained staff who expect higher wages. And parents bear those increased costs, she said.

But as more families in Utah, and across the U.S., have both parents in the workforce, there’s an increasing need for high-quality, affordable child care. At the same time, “Utah is experiencing virtually full employment” and employers are facing challenges filling positions and maintaining their workforce, according to the report.

While some families use informal, unregulated child care, such as family members or neighbors, others turn to regulated, licensed child care, whether that’s in large centers or smaller home-based settings.

It can be tough for parents to know what to look for when search for quality, licensed care, Gruber said. To help Utahns make “informed decisions,” the Office of Child Care has a searchable quality rating system and other information available at careaboutchildcare.utah.gov/.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.