Susan R. Madsen: Utah is finally addressing the crisis of unaffordable quality childcare

Childcare in Utah costs too much and pays too little and something has to change.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toddlers play and listen to music at the Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 27, 2021.

This past year, the Utah Legislature decided to study an issue during the interim session that has become a front-and-center topic during the COVID-19 pandemic: childcare.

To be clear, childcare has been in crisis for decades, as long as women have increasingly attended college after having children, joined the labor force, and started their careers. (And for some it’s not a “choice” at all; it’s a necessity.) Yet, they often find their options and dreams are limited due to lack of affordable, quality childcare.

Recently, the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) released a policy white paper to address the complex issue of childcare. I wanted to share a few things I learned.

First, why is this a “crisis” issue? Why can’t childcare providers just simply meet demand? A 2021 U.S. Department of the Treasury report determined the childcare sector to be in “market failure.” Market failure occurs when a market produces too much or too little of a good or service as compared to what would be best from a societal perspective. In our case, we have too little.

Childcare is a private market where the cost for both consumers and providers (childcare business owners) is too expensive. In many states, infant care costs more than in-state college tuition, yet those who work in the industry average an annual salary of $24,000. So, although childcare is expensive, childcare providers make little money and those who live on this income often live in poverty. As you can see, it is complex. Without government intervention at some level, it is hard to find solutions.

“Quality care” means that there is a skilled workforce and particular teacher to child ratios. Teacher-to-child ratios shrink the younger the child, making infant care particularly expensive. If providers simply increased prices to ensure a viable business and an adequately paid workforce, it would price out even more consumers than it already does. So, parents who can’t afford childcare can’t pursue the career of their choice and, in some cases, can’t work at all, affecting workforce availability and diminishing everyone’s economic viability.

For some parents, working is a choice. But, for most Utah families, employment is not an option. Often “all available parents” (and sometimes that is one) must work to support their families.

A recent childcare symposium hosted by UWLP highlighted top business leaders, advocates and policy experts. They made it clear that Utahns deserve more, that providers and their employees deserve to thrive, that parents and families deserve a choice, and that Utah businesses deserve a skilled, diverse workforce. Yet, we found in our research that solutions are complex. And fixing one spoke of the complexity wheel will not solve the challenges of availability and affordability.

I commend the Utah Legislature for taking on this issue, as their “spoke” of the childcare wheel is critical for Utah. Public policy — along with interventions from the business, nonprofit, community and other sectors — will be central to helping Utah’s families and economy continue to thrive. It is time for Utah to take on this issue more strategically and collectively.

As the Utah Legislature wrestles with better ways to help parents afford childcare, to assist providers so they can afford to offer quality childcare, and to incentivize businesses to offer childcare benefits — know there are models to consider from other states. For Utah to continue to thrive, addressing childcare is something that can no longer be ignored.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Utah State University.