Dillon Donnelly: If we care about kids and our workforce, we need to encourage home-based child-care providers

Laura works as an assembler for a medical device company in the East Metro. Born and raised in East St. Paul, she still calls the area home and likes her job. Laura is expecting with her husband for the first time. Their feelings of joy and anticipation quickly gave way to anxiety after learning about the difficulties surrounding child care.

After failing to find local home-based infant care providers, they reached out to child-care centers in the metro area only to find long waiting lists and a series of “we’re full” replies. The reality for many young families is that due to provider scarcity, parents alert providers that they’re expecting even before friends and family.

Then came another realization: Child care is really expensive.

Minnesota is currently ranked fourth in the nation for most-expensive childcare. Child-care costs for an infant, in a licensed center, average $1,431 per month, for a staggering $16,087 annually. Such costs make Laura and many other families across Minnesota consider whether it is economically viable to keep working.

The consequences of not having access to quality child care are significant. It is unfortunate and unacceptable that women are sidelined from the workforce due to the cost of child care. Most egregious, children will not flourish without quality child-care.

Child care needs to be a platform issue. Let’s re-engage and coalesce behind child-care improvement initiatives.

For starters, we’re losing child-care providers, and that trend must be reversed. Families essentially choose from child-care centers or providers who run child care services from their homes.

Big picture, we first need to spur development of new home-based providers.

Across the state, we’re seeing a reduction in the number of in-home child care providers — the number is down over 30% over the last 15 years. Today, only 470 in-home providers service the entire Ramsey County area. The reduction is due to providers reaching retirement age, alternative job options and exhaustive over-regulation, making profitability harder to achieve.

Here’s why it’s important to focus on new at-home provider development.

First, home-based providers are quicker to start up and can backfill the child-care capacity deficit. Child-care centers, Head Start and other programs are valuable providers, but slow to scale. In contrast, a new in-home source can be up and running in about six months.

We need more providers, but in the right locations. Areas of East Saint Paul are classified as child-care deserts, a technical term illustrating a scarcity of providers. Creating providers only in higher income areas doesn’t help areas of concentrated poverty in need of child-care options. In addition, we need to be mindful to develop a pool of providers reflective of the people in our communities.

Lastly, home-based providers also support desperately needed cost-effective options. Home providers are largely less expensive, over $100 less per week for infants and toddlers, amounting to considerable annual savings for families.

Moving forward, we need strategic plans for child-care improvement at state, county and city levels to support home-based providers.

On a statewide level, an increasingly adversarial relationship between the state and providers would benefit from a reset. Employ a supportive, collaborative approach. Start by waiving up-front licensing fees and on-going training costs. What amounts to a modest amount of money collected in revenue for the government is a self-defeating barrier for new providers and a dent in the paycheck of current vendors.

Quality is paramount. However, more checklists and contentious licensure visits are not the solution. Create peer-mentoring networks to improve quality, provider longevity.

County services are tasked with recruitment for new home-providers, but funding has been allocated elsewhere and counties no longer host informational sessions in the evenings. Create interest with evening informational sessions at local recreational centers and libraries. Don’t forget child care and food for attendees.

Cities have largely considered child care a county or state issue, but this can no longer be the case. Cities can work to streamline the initial licensing process. Failed inspections create a series of stops and starts for new providers. Connect city-based safety and inspections with early county programming to get providers started early on home repairs.

Cities should consider providers as any other small-business. Home-based providers are noble, small businesses who support our families every day. Extend small-business funding programs for new provider support.

From Saint Peter to Saint Paul, communities are struggling with cost and access to quality child care. For many, a home-based child care provider might not only be the only option, but the best option.

Dillon Donnelly lives in the Twin Cities and works in manufacturing.