Some communities and neighborhoods in Snohomish County are considered to be child care deserts.
Yes, you read that right — the word is “desert.” And it applies to parts of Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood. That’s why the county is spending a total of $20 million this year and next in COVID-19 funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to support more child care in more communities and hopefully help make it more affordable.
The term “child care desert” comes from the Center for American Progress think tank, which defines itself as “an independent, nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans through bold, progressive ideas… . Our aim is not just to change the conversation, but to change the country.”
You may never have heard of a child care desert; I hadn’t until the county unveiled its new plan. Five years ago, the Center for American Progress adopted the phrase to describe “neighborhoods or communities that are either lacking any child care options or have so few child care providers that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.” According to the center, U.S. census research shows that one-third of American children under the age of 5 are in the care of someone other than a relative.
Snohomish County data show that as of August 2022, there were 14,500 licensed slots for children aged 5 and under. The county also estimates there are 54,000 children who are 5 and younger. Not all need non-family care. But census figures show that nationwide, two-thirds of mothers of young children are working.
The Center for American Progress reports that child care supply is “especially low” for two-thirds of Hispanic/Latino families and half of families in rural areas, and that half of low-income families live in areas without enough licensed care providers.
So, how does this make South County a child care desert?
The state considers the areas in dark purple as part of an extreme child care desert — not enough care for all the children who need it. That includes parts of Edmonds and Lynnwood — ZIP codes 98026, 98036 and 98037. But 98020 ZIP code in Edmonds and 98043 in Mountlake Terrace do not get that designation.
In launching the new program, County Executive Dave Somers said lack of available child care is “a major barrier to people joining or returning to the workforce. The effects of child care deserts across our county impact all of us, but they have an even more acute impact on women, who are pushed out of the job market at higher rates due to the extremely high cost of child care.”
The person tasked with getting the program going is Chrissie Grover-Roybal, deputy director pf the county’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. “We’ve heard so much from parents that their lack of access to child care is keeping them out of the workforce,” Roybal said. “Our child care lists are far too long; it’s expensive… it doesn’t make sense to go back to work sometimes, if you spend more on child care than you’re earning.”
The county child care plan
The county says part of the program will enhance and support child care solutions that already exist. That may mean expanding or remodeling current operations or building new facilities. For-profit, nonprofit and home child care operations are all eligible to apply. The county, said Grover-Roybal, could award as much as $2 million to an applicant — as long as they create space for more children.
She said that those who apply can look at unused space in local government buildings, commercial space, or non-profits. Employers with unused space, she added, might provide child care as an incentive or benefit.
“My wildest dreams” said Grover-Roybal, “would be that we see a lot of partnerships out of this… where we find unused space and say let’s build child care here… because child care really enhances the fabric of a community.” But she recognizes that this part of the program does not, by itself, solve the county’s child care needs.
Two difficult issues remain
While money to jumpstart more spaces in day care will help, two difficult issues must be resolved. The first is child care pay combined with the high turnover in child care workers. The state Legislature’s child care collaborative task force in 2020 reported that there was a 43% turnover every year in the staff of child care operators statewide.
Since the pandemic, Grover-Roybal said the county has lost 25% of day care staff. A number of day cares have shut down, leaving families scrambling.
As part of the new commitment, she expects the county will also spend ARPA monies to help develop recruitment and retention programs; incentive programs to convince people to consider child care as a career path. That will be more challenging than building or expanding day care sites. Several job-finding websites list the average child care pay between $16-$18 an hour, barely at or slightly above minimum wage.
The second issue is affordability. Many parents say they simply cannot afford today’s child care prices. A year ago, the Seattle P-I reported the results of a study that showed a whopping 55% increase in child care costs during the pandemic.
The advocacy group Child Care Aware just updated its report on costs, which they say still exceed the rate of inflation.
The county has set aside $2.5 million in the day care plan for “child care vouchers and navigation support primarily for job-seeking families.” The state also offers assistance through its Working Connections’ webpage.
The Legislature’s child care task force report put it this way: “Our current future workforce and economy depends on high-quality child care. Families and child care professionals cannot afford to pay the bill-public and private investment is needed.”
The county hopes the $20 million and these first steps will spark more efforts help eliminate those child care deserts.
— By Bob Throndsen