It’s no secret that professional child care is expensive in Puget Sound, and working class people in cities surrounding Seattle are affected in different ways than within.
A new report from ChildCare Aware looked at national trends in the industry and took a closer look at what’s happening regionally. Washington state is one of the worst places to try to find child care, with only five states in worse shape, according to the Center for American Progress.
The center tracks what it calls child care “deserts,” meaning any census tract with more than 50 children younger than 5 that have no providers, or so few options that there’s three times as many children as licensed spaces.
In Washington, 63 percent of people live in a child care desert, with the disparity between white, black and Latino families all within a few percentage points of the statewide average. Those in the suburbs are more likely to live in one of these deserts, and low-income neighborhoods have even fewer child care options.
ChildCare Aware found that in King County, child care providers dropped from more than 2,100 with space for 59,316 children in 2013 to 1,939 providers with space for 63,846 kids by the end of 2017. However, this is dwarfed by the need, as there are more than 127,500 kids younger than 5 countywide.
The new report found that parents both in Seattle and outside of it are struggling, and that subsidies provided by some cities — like Seattle — aren’t enough to meet needs. Ryan Pricco is the director of policy and advocacy for ChildCare Aware, and said higher wages, a lack of capacity and skyrocketing demand mean that parents in the county are having to pay more and more for child care.
“It’s a cycle that kind of keeps feeding into itself,” he said.
The study looked at King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The median income for a married couple with kids inside Seattle was $151,000, some $41,000 more than outside of the city. On average, the annual cost for infant care for families in Seattle was $23,000 in 2018, compared to $16,600 elsewhere. High child care costs, lower wages and bloated housing costs put financial strain on families everywhere in the region, and especially on those headed by single women.
“By and large, so many parents in (Seattle) are just getting priced out of child care,” Pricco said.
It’s also tough for child care providers, Pricco said. A lack of commercial space and local and state requirements on the facilities can make it harder for providers to set up and turn a profit. Seattle has tried creating programs, universal preschool, but this only runs six hours a day, meaning working families have to rearrange their work schedule to drop off and pick up kids.
Most child care centers also run from 10 to 12 hours a day, during the day. This means working class families pulling swing shifts are essentially shut out of professional child care.
“Then you basically have no options for child care, and honestly I don’t know what you’d do,” Pricco said.
Cities like Kent and Seattle also have additional subsidies for child care. Government funds can help people making 200 percent of the federal poverty level, but in an area as expensive as King County, it doesn’t go far. The federal povery level in 2018 was $20,780 for a family of three. Kent and Seattle have both increased that limit, but assistance is still not enough for many families.
Businesses also are thinking about ways to improve the situation. Amy Anderson is the government affairs director of the Association of Washington Businesses, which helped fund the report. Parents who can’t find care for their children often end up leaving the workforce, which removes institutional knowledge and skills in a tight labor market.
“You have situations as we go around talking to our businesses and to parents where particularly once baby number two or child number two comes around, it becomes more of an economic decision for one caregiver to stay home,” Anderson said.
Some larger employers are looking at building their own facilities for employee child care. The federal government also allows for a flexible spending account, where employees can set aside as much as $5,000 of their pre-tax earnings. But in Puget Sound, that might only cover two months. Rep. Jaime Herrera-Butler proposed a Congressional bill which would more than double the limit.
Legislators in Olympia have been thinking about child care too. HB 1344 passed last session, which set a goal of creating access to affordable child care by 2025 in the state. It’s a bill that will try to cap expenses for families at 7 percent of their income.
These included creating an assistance program similar to Seattle’s, which provides vouchers for eligible families who enroll. The county also could support the creation of new child care facilities, with partial funding coming from $318 million in one-time funds from the Legislature’s 2015 Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account. Ultimately, about $153 million will be spent on early learning.
The report also recommended the county create an infants at work program and flexible telecommuting policies for employees, incentives for employers throughout the county to support families by creating a child care resources website and further explore the recommendations and create a report by late 2019.
The Washington state Department of Commerce (DOC) is part of a Child Care Collaborative Task Force which was created in 2018, and includes ChildCare Aware and the Association of Washington Business.
A September report found that half of Washington parents found it difficult to afford child care, and more than a quarter quit or left school or training because of child care issues. About 10 percent were fired or let go. In total, the report estimated $6.5 billion is lost annually in direct and opportunity costs due to employee child care issues.
Locally, the King County Women’s Advisory Board released a report last year which outlined ways to help families here. It suggested five primary things the county could do to help low and moderate income families.
Cheryl Smith, policy and planning director for the DOC, said the Collaborative Task Force was extended through June 2021, and will develop a strategy for providing Washington families with accessible and affordable child care by 2025. Accessible and affordable are catch-all phrases in health care and child care discussions, but Smith said they’re trying to define what an affordable child care system would look like.
“Child care access right now very much affects workers, it affects parents who are working, parents who are in the education system, employers and cumulatively has a very large effect on the economy,” Smith said.
North of the border, officials in British Columbia have also been grappling with how to increase access to child care. Their solution was a universal care pilot program, and parents in B.C. have been struggling with similar issues to those in Puget Sound.
The Child Care Collaborative Task Force will also have recommendations out in November, which will look at how businesses can help expand access. A full set of recommendations and reports is due to the state Legislature by June 2021.