In fertile Wisconsin, child care deserts leave families struggling.
A mother’s been asked to get to work in Sauk City. It was her day off – one that she was looking forward to – but someone called in sick and the business needs her help. She’s got her toddlers, though, who can’t be left at the house. There’s no one, but her, to care for them. She needs the money but she can’t afford to go in. There are a few child care centers in the area but they’ve long since booked up.
“Sorry,” she says, “I can’t.”
She, along with many others in the area, and throughout the state of Wisconsin, is in a child care desert.
The people of Sauk Prairie have become keenly aware of a lack of child care providers in the community. The Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce wanted to rectify the issue. They wrote a grant for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families DREAM UP! Grant.
They were recently selected, as one of only 12 communities in the state, to receive $75,000 to research child care and identify a space to open an additional child care center in the Sauk Prairie community. Their goal is to identify, renovate, open, and operate an additional licensed early learning center to serve a minimum 100 children by the summer of 2024.
“In addition to expanding child care slots in the community, the chamber supported existing child care centers by including them in the process to better understand the challenges of providing early learning education, staffing requirements, and reporting needs,” said Tywana German, the Executive Director of the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce.
A child care desert is any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers, or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.
Wisconsin is not immune to the lack of child care options. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), 54% of people in Wisconsin live in a child care desert. The national average is 51%. Rural areas are particularly hard hit. Some 68% of rural Wisconsin families live in areas without enough licensed child care providers. In Wisconsin, 79% of mothers of young children participate in the labor force. CAP found that child care deserts are associated with few mothers in the workforce.
That mother in Sauk City is struggling. So is a mother in Bluffview, in Merrimac, and in communities throughout the state.
In the past 18 months, Sauk Prairie community members have worked together to understand the child care crisis. Research shows that the Sauk Prairie community has an estimated 500-slot shortfall.
At the end of May, Sandra Briesath was hired as the Sauk Prairie Early Childcare Project Coordinator. It is a limited-term 120-day contract to identify a space to open an additional child care center in the community.
Another individual instrumental in the new initiative is Amy Alt, who has worked with the team as a volunteer since the process began. Alt is currently employed as an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant by the city of Madison’s Community Development Division.
“It’s important,” Alt said, “that our business community gain insights, not only in the stressors that many of their staff are feeling about a lack of quality early care, but also about the impact high quality early care and education has on brain development, school readiness, and life skills.” Alt continued, “When thinking long term, we can see that this is an investment with high return in future employees and our community.”
Alt believes a lack of access to regulated early care and the educational workforce are the main concerns to be focused on, not only locally, but for the state and the country.
Early care and education workers are often compensated with low wages and a lack of benefits. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage of a child care worker is $14.22 an hour, or $29,570 annually. Wisconsin, as of May 2022, had an average hourly wage of $13, or $27,050 annually.
“The market failure is creating concerns for communities everywhere,” Alt said.
Locally, Alt has seen the issue firsthand. She has seen commutes grow longer, as families seek child care farther afield, in places like Baraboo, Madison, and farther out still. She’s seen families priced out of the local child care market.
Statistics from World Population Review notes that annual child care costs in Wisconsin total $12,567. Alt has seen families forcing one family member to stay home to take care of their children rather than enter the workforce. She’s seen local child care wait lists growing, some more than a year long. She’s seen some families forced to find whatever child care is available and affordable, often putting them in a difficult position in having to compromise on the quality and/or regulation of care.
“During the most formative years of a child’s life,” Alt said, “these are not compromises we want families to have to make.”
German, Briesath, Alt, and the Sauk Prairie community are eager to alleviate these burdens being placed on local families.
Alt said, “There will be challenges along the way – the cost of care is a big one – but Sauk Prairie has proven over and over that we are a community who thinks outside the box to overcome barriers that might stop others.”
Soon, the mother struggling in Sauk City will have another much-needed resource for her and her family.
Jonathan Shipley, Madison Media Partners
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