Utah should invest in child care so more families can afford their housing, Robert Gehrke says

Our supposedly kid-friendly state is only meeting a third of its child-care needs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah has a housing crisis, right? The solution, obviously, is to build more. It makes sense and I’ve bought into this logic.

But there is another way to approach this quandary that fundamentally changes how we perceive this crisis and, consequently, the solutions.

The issue isn’t that we don’t have enough houses and apartments and condos, according to David Fields, a housing economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. It’s that workers don’t get paid enough to be able to afford to put a roof over their head.

Fields makes a compelling case. Since 2002, the inflation-adjusted household income has been almost flat — even as our economy has boomed. The chart that tracks housing costs, however, has gone up. And up. And up.

It is deficient wages, then, not deficient housing, that has spawned this crisis.

Studies that have been widely cited — including by yours truly — have estimated that we have a shortage of 50,000-plus dwellings. But census data that Fields cited to skeptical legislators indicates there are units available. The problem is that Utah workers can’t afford them and simply building more cookie-cutter condos won’t change the underlying problem.

“We can’t build our way out of this,” Fields said.

It’s a revolutionary approach. Rather than focusing on more affordable housing, we try to make housing more affordable. But how?

Some of the obvious solutions are political nonstarters.

For example, Utah could mandate a living wage. However, a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage didn’t make it out of committee last session. Apparently, a full-time, minimum wage job earning $1,160 a month (before taxes) is fine in a market where the average apartment in Salt Lake County cost $1,153 in 2018.

We could limit evictions. But, as we’ve seen, property owners have been remarkably successful in beating back the most meager reforms and making Utah’s laws even more favorable to landlords.

The state could offer more housing subsidies — and they’re important. But as long as housing costs outpace wage growth, as they have, subsidies will never catch up.

So what do we do?

Part of the solution may have been presented to lawmakers in another hearing room that same day: Invest in child care.

Better than three out of every five women with kids under the age of 6 and nearly three-quarters of women with kids between the ages of 6 and 17 years are in the labor force, according to Susan Madsen, director of the Women And Leadership Project at Utah State University.

Nationally, Madsen told lawmakers last week, inadequate access to child care costs the U.S. economy $57 billion per year.

And child care access is a particularly acute problem in Utah. A report last year from the Utah Office of Child Care found that the state is currently only meeting about a third of its child care needs.

Over the coming months, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Bountiful, said a legislative subcommittee will explore ways to address the need, an incredibly encouraging step that would have been difficult to imagine a few years ago.

There are a few ideas that have been floated, but they will cost money.

Some are simple, like expanding need-based grants to parents. Expanded full-day kindergarten and pre-K will help.

But to assure quality of care, we need more private and public options. Even with the high cost of child care, operators can’t afford to pay and retain qualified employees. Madsen told lawmakers last week that the families of child care workers are twice as likely to live in poverty, and across four of the state’s seven metro areas, 90% of child care workers don’t make a living wage.

Louisiana has taken a holistic approach, offering tax incentives to parents, to operators and to their employees to help ease the strain on all three aspects of care.

Handy said legislation is being crafted to change a state law that prohibits child-care subsidies if one parent is not a citizen. It would be the child, not the parent, who would qualify.

The state has also prohibited non-citizens from operating child-care centers, a move that, when it was enacted, eliminated about 100 licensed centers.

The state could take a more active role in disseminating information about child-care resources to businesses or bringing small- to mid-size employers together to share the costs of providing care. In some areas — particularly rural areas — it could do more to cover the capital costs of building a child care center.

Other solutions will emerge, and hopefully the state sees fit to invest a significant portion of the $1.6 billion in federal COVID relief funds to help bolster our fraying child care network. Because studies have repeatedly shown an investment in children pays dividends for the kids down the road, it will help expand our stretched workforce, has been shown to aid the career trajectory of parents (especially women) and just maybe it could alleviate some of our current housing crisis.