Utah's childcare crisis may get worse before it gets better
The UWLP first published a research snapshot on childcare in Utah five years ago. Since then, because of continued market failures and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the status of childcare in Utah has reached a “crisis level.”
Lack of affordability and accessibility
According to the report, much of the issue lies with the accessibility and affordability of childcare. The average cost of infant care for one child is 14% of Utah’s median family income, which is double the standard set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this indicates only 12% of Utah families can afford infant care.
Parents also face a lack of accessibility. There are far more children in need of childcare than slots available for them. In 2020, 153,945 children under six potentially needed childcare, since all parents were in the workforce (up from 152,479 in 2017). As of September 2023, there were only 53,368 available slots through licensed childcare centers and licensed family childcare.
Some areas, especially rural ones, don’t have access to childcare at all. In one analysis, an estimated 77% of Utahns live in a childcare desert, which is an area with more than 50 children under age five that has either no childcare providers or three times as many children as licensed childcare slots.
“Childcare is so inaccessible, it’s so unaffordable, that people can’t go to the jobs that they would have the degree for, the skills for, that they would like to do, because there’s not enough flexibility for their childcare,” said Robyn Blackburn, research fellow with the UWLP and one of the authors of the new research snapshot.
For parents who do find work, lack of childcare accessibility may force them to leave work early, arrive late or miss entire days of work. A quarter of parents reported being fired because of problems accessing childcare, according to a survey by ReadyNation.
Blackburn says this issue affects not just women and mothers, but the whole Utah economy. Annually, $1.4 billion is lost because of childcare inadequacies, caused by lost tax revenue and employee absences and turnover.
Struggles for childcare workers
Childcare workers are also facing a crisis. Wages are so low that over half of childcare workers use public benefits to make ends meet, and families of childcare workers are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than other workers’ families.
“These people are essential for everyone else to be able to work, right? But they're being paid some of the lowest wages across the board,” Blackburn said. “So it's no surprise that the industry has people leaving.”
She says this can create a vicious cycle where childcare workers leave the industry to get the necessary skills for a higher wage, but may require childcare themselves, which is made more difficult because there are fewer childcare workers.
The issue is also likely to get worse next June, when Utah is predicted to deplete the $573 million of COVID-era support that’s helped keep the childcare sector afloat. This “funding cliff” could cause higher childcare costs, program closures and workforce turnover because of lowered wages in the childcare sector.
The research snapshot lays out four main steps Utah can take to mitigate this ongoing crisis. First, they urged legislators to sponsor and vote for bills that support and fund childcare. Examples of legislation include tax breaks for families with children under six or covering costs associated with licensing to ease burdens on childcare providers.
To address the issue of childcare deserts, the snapshot encourages a county-by-county approach, as different areas have different needs. One strategy would be to increase informal childcare by developing government compensation or tax credits for family members who provide childcare.
For Utah companies, the UWLP recommends adopting family-friendly policies like childcare at work and parental leave that can ease the burden on working parents.
Finally, they encourage individuals to recognize the essential labor, both paid and unpaid, of all caregivers.
"These are choices and sacrifices that a lot of women make,” Blackburn said. “And I think we need to consciously acknowledge that unseen labor and that unrewarded labor.”