4 things to know about Utah’s child care challenges

Organizations are raising the alarm about cost hikes and a looming crisis with potentially “catastrophic” impacts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teacher Alyssa works with the children at the Sammy Center Preschool in Millcreek on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Day care costs are expected to rise 9% or more as federal COVID-19 grant money that supported the industry runs out.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Child care in Utah can cost as much as in-state college tuition, and it’s going to get more expensive.

The industry was “quite a mess” even before the coronavirus pandemic, said Jenna Wiliams, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children.

The federal government stepped in with stabilization grants when COVID-19 exacerbated issues within the industry, but that funding is running out.

Voices for Utah Children and partners like the Utah State Board of Education and United Way of Salt Lake are raising the alarm about the looming crisis with potentially “catastrophic” impacts.

They also are offering options like a provider tax credit, improvements to the child care subsidy program and other solutions to help.

Here are the basics of the problem and potential solutions.

1. Families can’t afford to pay

According to a market study from 2021, the average yearly cost for infant care and child care for toddlers was $9,556 and $8,081 a year, respectively.

Data from KIDS COUNT — a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation showing how the country’s lack of affordable and accessible child care negatively affects children, families and U.S. businesses — has a higher estimate at $9,003 for center-based child care and $7,684 for family care or home-based care.

Some families pay much more.

Marissa Moran planned to cut her hours to spend more time with her kids before she and her husband learned day care will cost nearly $30,000 because of a 9% increase.

Read more: Why advocates are ringing alarm bells about Utah’s child care industry

Moran understands the extra money will help increase teachers’ pay but said continued increases could make the cost unsustainable.

2. Providers can’t afford to stay

The rate increases are replacing stabilization grants that helped child care centers stay open, Williams said.

Maria Soter, the founder and director at The Sammy Center, a preschool in Millcreek, still worries she might close without enough funding.

She has raising rates by hundreds of dollars monthly to make up for losing a stabilization grant and will still be “barely breaking even every month.”

Soter said she can’t afford to give her teachers a raise and they all have second jobs.

Child care workers have always been undervalued with depressed wages, Williams said.

According to state data, the median wage for child care workers is $23,522 a year — $11.31 an hour. The median wage for animal caretakers is $26,615, or $12.80 an hour.

3. Child care is impacting parents’ careers

Child care costs are leading an increasing number of parents to move their children to different centers or to quit, shift to remote work or make other changes to provide care at home instead.

According to KIDS COUNT, 13% of Utah children were in families where a parent had job changes due to child care problems. Changes could include quitting, not taking a new job, changing hours and more. That was on par with the national rate and higher than 28 other states.

A survey report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found child care issues had impacted 34% of Utah women and 28% of Utah men.

4. Businesses, government officials can help

Businesses need to be a “pretty robust” part of finding solutions, said Kabi Catalano, executive director of Utah Community Builders.

There are lots of options, she said, from providing on-site care to subsidizing care through flex spending accounts for employees to contracting with a third-party vendor for backup care.

Lawmakers need to step up, too, Williams said.

Advocates have asked for funding to continue stabilization grants, she said. Other potential solutions include a wage supplement and a tax credit for child care providers to help them stay in the industry, she said.

Utah also could expand its child care subsidy program. Currently, just 9.5% percent of eligible families receive a subsidy, Williams said.

A child tax credit passed earlier this year is a big help, she said, but analysis has shown it helps “very few people.”

In general, state lawmakers haven’t invested in child care but need to start doing so, Williams said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.