Jennifer Stout: How Utah can fix the child care crisis and help single parents like me

Ranking 44th in the nation for spending per child is just sad in a state that prides itself on family.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Buddy Bin in North Salt Lake on March 26, 2020.

Have you heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child?”

Well, what happens when you don’t have a village? After I was unexpectedly separated from my husband, I knew my options were limited.

In the back of my mind, I thought, “Doesn’t the state help women in these kinds of situations?” As someone making $14-per-hour at a part-time job, I was relieved to know that I was able to qualify for food stamps. After realizing that the amount that I was receiving for food stamps was equivalent to about one loaf of bread every three weeks, some fruits and vegetables sprinkled here and there and some canned goods, I knew I couldn’t rely on food stamps as my only source of food.

Finding a higher paying job was necessary, even though I was throwing up daily because of my pregnancy. I was using any energy I had to work on graduate school assignments and still trying to sift through the fresh trauma after my separation.

I researched all the top maternity-leave jobs in Utah and, miraculously, was offered a position with a major company. After almost passing out on my first day, I was able to make it through six months until little Ezra came. But an unexpected stay in the NICU resulted in stacks of hospital bills piling up and worries of future child care.

Because I grew up in what I now consider an abusive childhood home, I want Ezra to learn how to manage his emotions so he doesn’t have to deal with the mental health challenges that may come as a result. But how can I do that when only 29 child care centers in Utah meet the standards of The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) accreditation?

According to KSL.com, there were 153,950 kids in 2019 in Utah who required child care and a capacity of 55,460 formal child care slots — though we don’t know how many meet NAEYC accreditation. That leaves a 98,750 children in need of child care.

This is unacceptable. This is a crisis.

When I had my son, I was placed on a one- to two-year waiting list for an NAEYC-accredited child care center. I shopped around and, with the average tuition costing $1,300 a month for all-day care, it is just not feasible for a single mother.

This kind of price is most likely going to only allow those children in a certain social class to be able to receive a higher quality education and therefore have a higher probability of success in their future. With this system, only the rich will keep on succeeding and the cycle is never broken.

There are, however, some potential solutions:

High-quality mandates

A 2004 study found that when New Jersey enacted teacher qualification mandates, children had better outcomes. Utah should enact higher-quality mandates for its centers and providers to demonstrate it cares about the well-being of its children and of the future of the state.

More school funding and tuition caps

Supply and demand is making child care more expensive. If the government created more high-quality centers, the demand for child care wouldn’t be so high. The state could also create a law in which there was a cap for tuition, helping parents such as myself.

Universal child care

States like West Virginia and Oklahoma have adopted a system where all 4-year-olds can attend preschool for free. Although this doesn’t help me much right now, it is better than nothing and would benefit my son and me in the future. In some states, funding for pre-K is provided by the lottery system. If making the lottery legal in Utah would help create high-quality education in Utah, I am all for it.

Whatever we do, let’s just do something in Utah. Ranking 44th in the nation for spending per child is just sad in a state that prides itself on family. Only reaching 3 of 10 quality standard benchmarks is just not acceptable.

It’s time to step up Utah, for the families, for the single parents, for the children and for Ezra.

Jennifer Stout

Jennifer Stout is a 29-year-old graduate student at the University of Utah studying international affairs. She is mom to Ezra, her 1.5-year-old son. She is an advocate for social justice and has volunteered with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), as well as the New American Refugee program.