Iowa Is Facing A Childcare Crisis And COVID-19 Has Made It Worse
June 11, 2020
By Natalie Krebs at the Iowa Public Radio
Childcare in Iowa appears to be reaching a crisis. Nearly a quarter of the state’s residents are estimated to live in a childcare desert while the annual cost has been estimated to be more than tuition at a public university. This year addressing childcare was set to be a priority in the state legislature, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Even before COVID-19, childcare centers in Iowa were already struggling, and the problem seemed to be coming to ahead. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of programs listed under the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral Center dropped 37 percent. During that same period, the number of programs accepting kids on state childcare assistance also decreased - by 42 percent.
State lawmakers had taken notice. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced childcare as a priority during her Condition of the State speech last January. "It’s another barrier for families looking for a way up. For some, it’s about affordability; for others, access is the issue; and for thousands of Iowans, it’s both," she said.
A flurry of childcare bills were making their way through the legislature, including increasing childcare assistance rates, which child advocates have argued is too low and creating an income-based sliding scale for parents on income assistance.
Family advocacy groups like the Child and Family Policy Center and United Way had advocated for change for years, but this session, for the first time, some business organizations made it one of their legislative priorities.
Iowa has one of the country's highest labor force participation rates, but access to childcare is affecting that, said Joe Murphy, the executive director of the Iowa Business Council, during an interview in early March.
"Having barriers to employment, barriers to entry into the workforce, like childcare, you know, kind of exacerbates that problem even more," he said. "So that's why we took a bold stand this year and included that in our legislative agenda for the first time ever.”
But then the session was suspended in mid-March due to COVID-19, and the pandemic has pushed Iowa into a bigger crisis.
More than 930 licensed childcare and in-home centers have closed during the pandemic. And one report estimated Iowa could lose half its childcare slots because of COVID-19.
Some providers, already on the financial edge, have closed because they are afraid of the virus, said Sheila Hansen, the policy director at the Child and Family Policy Center. "They just had to sit down and say, 'Can I do this anymore? You know, I don't think we can do this. I can't risk bringing in children, you know, who could be passing something on to me,'" she said.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has called for an additional $25 billion to help providers and workers, but the problem is many parents are struggling with childcare as well.
A bill that would create a sliding income scale for this assistance - along with four other childcare-related bills -- passed the Iowa House in March. Since the legislature reconvened this month, the Senate has advanced three of those bills.
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