Brigette Weier and Ali Dedman: How are the children of Utah? Mitt Romney could help.

Without assistance, child care centers either pay too little or charge too much.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Miles, director of The Buddy Bin child care business in North Salt Lake, plays pretend food making on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Miles has experienced a dramatic drop in the number of kids coming but is also trying to help families who are first responders and essential workers.

“And how are the children?” is the traditional greeting of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai people understand that if the demographic that needs the most protection isn’t well, then the society isn’t well.

Utah has more children as a share of our population than any other state in the nation — and so our national child care crisis is hitting Utah families and children the hardest.

As a pastor and a child care center director sharing a campus in Holladay, our passion has always been focused on children. Working with the amazing staff and awesome families at Buttons ‘n Bows Preschool & Childcare is a dream come true. COVID showed us all the importance of reliable, high quality, caring child care. But keeping our center open during the height of the pandemic was extremely difficult, as we had several families opt to keep their kids home while working remotely. It was only because of grants from the federal government that we were able to keep afloat. Other child care centers weren’t as lucky.

As children return, we’ve seen significant regression or lack of progression while away from preschool and child care. Amongst our colleagues we’ve seen dozens of child care centers close, exacerbating what was already the worst child care desert in the country. Pre-pandemic we had a small waiting list, but could usually accommodate some new families. Today we have a wait list of 74 families when our center is only licensed for 52, and we are completely full.

We’re not alone. Most reputable early childhood centers have long wait lists that can take months to move through. Just ask any of the 64% of Utah families who have all available parents working outside the home what it’s like to find quality, affordable child care.

The biggest barrier to creating the quality childcare spots Utah needs: our low wages for our teachers. The average child care professional in Utah earned $10.47 an hour in 2020, with few benefits. This has led many to leave the field in order to provide for their families. We are asking them to protect and teach the most vulnerable group through the most important time of brain development. They deserve to earn a living wage.

It has become nearly impossible to hire qualified staff due to our inability to offer higher wages and health benefits.

Why don’t child care centers just pay our teachers what they deserve? Because the economics make it impossible. We’d have to charge families $1,500 to $2,000/month. We know Utah families can’t afford that. So we are reliant on federal grants passed through the state, which don’t provide enough for us to pay a living wage.

The good news is that there is an opportunity to end this cycle: $423 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to Utah for the stabilization of childcare. Centers must be allowed to use these funds to attract and retain trained and passionate educators by raising wages and benefits, in addition to subsidizing tuition for families. That will get us through the next two years.

To solve this problem permanently, we look to the budget reconciliation bill working its way through Congress this month. The current proposal includes $450 billion for child care over the next 10 years — enough to secure $15 an hour wages for child care professionals and establish child care as critical infrastructure for all families. Our federal delegation should be at the front of the line cheering on this component of the budget reconciliation bill, even if they have hesitations about other components of the legislation.

Sen. Mitt Romney has a unique role to play in his position on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee.This investment in child care can complement a permanent extension of the Child Tax Credit championed by Romney to help families pay for child care and lift half the ranks of Utah’s 90,000 children currently living in poverty.

”And how are the children, Utah?” With a long-term investment in child care and a permanent extension of the child tax credit, we could finally answer: “They are thriving!”

Rev. Brigette Weier

Rev. Brigette Weier is pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and serves on the Organizing Committee of United Today Stronger Tomorrow Utah. pastor@oslcslc.org

Ali Dedman

Ali Dedman is director of the Buttons ‘n Bows Preschool and Childcare Center and serves on the Child Care Action Team of United Today Stronger Tomorrow Utah. alidedman@yahoo.com