‘Shocking’: New report raises alarms about Utah child care access

Child care isn’t affordable in any of Utah’s 29 counties, and rural families struggle the most, the report says.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two children play at The Sammy Center, a licensed child care center in the Millcreek area, on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

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Licensed child care isn’t just expensive, it’s also unavailable for most Utah families who may need it, according to a new report.

There’s a spot available only for about one in every three children potentially needing licensed care in the Beehive state, according to “Mapping Care for Kids,” a report released Monday by Voices for Utah Children.

That report breaks down child care accessibility in all of Utah’s 29 counties, revealing that while parents face a shortage of options across the state, families in rural counties struggle the most. It was meant to set a baseline on the current state of the child care industry, said Jenna Williams, a policy analyst focused on early learning and care.

Access is better than it once was — $600 million in federal funding helped prop up the child care industry and added spots for thousands of children within licensed facilities.

But that could change. Advocates already have sounded warning bells about increased costs as stabilization grants started to end this month and now are raising alarms about access.

The new report cites estimates from The Century Foundation that the number of available spots in licensed facilities in Utah will drop from about 54,000 to fewer than 20,000 as grants end.

That would meet about 12% of the potential child care need across the state and millions less in income tax revenue, Williams and Voices for Utah Children’s Policy Director Anna Thomas wrote.

Things are likely to get better before they get worse, Williams said, but federal grants have proven government intervention can help.

“We have seen a policy solution that works and does help increase child care capacity and make the child care system more sustainable,” she said.

Advocates recommend state leaders make public investments in child care, help parents afford care with improvements to programs like the child care subsidy and support the work of child care providers through actions like continuing stabilization grants and eliminating barriers to licensure.

Licensed child care covers less than 40% of need

Child care has become a necessity as the cost of living increases, the report reads — more than half of Utah families have either both parents or the sole parent in the workforce.

Yet there isn’t enough licensed child care available.

Reports from before the pandemic indicate 77% of Utah’s population lives in a child care desert and that there’s a 65% gap between the need for child care and the capacity of licensed programs.

The report released Monday shows licensed child care facilities meet just 36% of the need statewide. That means working families of the majority of Utah’s youngest children must turn to alternate arrangements, including family members; nannies; alternated schedules so one parent can stay home; and unlicensed providers.

Access varies by county, from a high of 54% in Summit County to a low of 0% in Daggett, Piute, Rich and Wayne counties. In general, licensed facilities fulfill less of the need in rural counties.

Once stabilization grants expire, access will drop even more, based on some estimates. The Century Foundation projects Utah is one of six states where half or more of all licensed child care programs statewide could close once the grants end.

The think tank estimates 663 child care programs across the state will close — the equivalent of 35,614 spots. That will lead to $101 million in lost earnings for parents and $5.8 million less in state income tax, the Century Foundation report reads.

Child care isn’t affordable in any of Utah’s 29 counties

The high cost of child care makes it even less accessible to low- and middle-income families, and especially rural families.

Statewide, child care for an infant or toddler and a preschool-age child costs about 17% of the median income of a four-person family.

That varies from 10% in Morgan and Summit counties to 41% in Grand County.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets child care affordability at no more than 7% of family income.

Regardless of what parents pay, providers can’t afford to pay their staff enough.

The average wage for child care providers in Utah is $12.87 an hour, or $26,770 a year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data available through the state. That’s less than dog walkers and other animal caretakers, retail salespeople and restaurant cooks.

Advocates recommend public investment, program improvements

Utah leaders need to take action so the state doesn’t go backward, Williams said.

Advocates’ top recommendation is public investment in child care. Of the state’s spending on children, just 1% goes to early education, according to an analysis of the 2023 budget.

That means lawmakers would need to treat child care as “an extension of the public education system,” the report reads.

“Almost every Utah family with young children is left on their own to afford years of expensive early education for their children, with little or no public support,” Williams and Thomas said in the report. “Knowing that the vast majority of brain development occurs before the age of six, it is shocking that this situation has been tolerated for so long.”

Advocates also recommend that policymakers help parents afford the care they want instead of basing their decisions only on cost or access.

This includes improving the child care subsidy program. That program is underutilized — less than 20% of children eligible for a subsidy receive one, according to data that analysts received from the Utah Office of Child Care.

Help for parents also could include an expansion of the child tax credit, the report notes.

The report also recommends that policymakers support the work of child care providers. That could include state funding to continue the federal stabilization grants, a wage supplement program, eliminating barriers to licensure and increased access to employment benefits.

Child care is “unequivocally a public good deserving of support,” the report reads. Williams added that action — especially data-proven public investment — will help.

“I think at any point when lawmakers decide they want to do something about this, the system will benefit,” 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.