Childcare crisis

Just over three years ago, when we were looking into daycare options for our soon-to-be infant daughter, the waiting lists were daunting – months long, sometimes longer than gestation itself, and many centers charged a fee just to get on the list.

Nine months later – gestation and maternity leave passed – poof! there was the spot we needed, in our center of choice, along with an incentive offered for referrals to fill other empty spots.

I was relieved, but I also wondered what happened. Where did the list go? Where did all those families go? Where did the kids go?

A lot happened – the economy shifted, for sure. But one important piece of the puzzle was that the state had frozen the rate at which it reimbursed childcare centers for the care of low-income kids. At the same time, it lowered the maximum income threshold for eligibility in the childcare assistance program.

Some families decided they couldn’t afford care and took their kids out. Some centers decided they could no longer afford to serve low-income families, or they started charging families the difference between the state reimbursement rate and their actual fee.

Or, as Katie Williams, co-chair of Childcare Works, says, they started cutting corners or trying to raise money from private donors.

“Some centers are just closing,” she adds. “They just had to give up.”

That’s when Minnesota dropped from fourth in the country to 29th in childcare assistance eligibility for working families, according to the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota.

Today, there are about 5,000 eligible families – even under the new, stricter requirements – on the waiting list for state childcare assistance. They’re being told, Williams says, the wait may be as long as two years.

That’s two years of cutting of back on working hours, job searches, or schoolwork. Two years of shuttling kids among whatever childcare arrangements the harried parents can make. Two years when kids are missing out on crucial educational and social opportunities.

But this year, our State Legislature has a chance to keep Minnesota from sliding even farther backward.

The Childcare Crisis Bill, introduced in the Senate by Senator John Hottinger and in the House by Representative Nora Slawik, would lift the freeze on reimbursements, raise the income cap on eligibility for assistance, and allocate funds to get those 5,000 eligible families off the waiting list.

As we go to press, the bill has been passed on to committees in both houses. But in a short legislative year, April is a crucial month. Call your state senators and representatives. Write letters. Tell them this really is a crisis and that, years down the line, the repercussions could be enormous.