AMES, Iowa – Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowans faced a child care crisis. Data shows Iowa leads the nation in the percentage of households with children under 6 years old where all parents work outside the home, at 75%. Even more startling, child care issues cost the state’s economy an estimated $935 million a year in lost taxes and employee absences and turnover.
Those startling statistics emerged in a recent episode of the “Back to Business Iowa” podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Guest Dawn Oliver Wiand is executive director of the Iowa Women’s Foundation, which has focused education and advocacy efforts on child care as a top barrier to women’s economic self-sufficiency in the state. But it isn’t only women who struggle to access affordable, high-quality care for their children.
Wiand quoted a recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which revealed Iowa has the highest labor force participation rate in the nation (70.4%). Businesses struggle to recruit and retain employees, and access to adequate, affordable child care in the community is often the biggest barrier they face.
“If we don't get a handle on child care, it is not only going to impact our families, it's going to impact businesses and communities,” Wiand said. “Child care really is an economic driver and we need to see it that way.”
Wiand is one of three expert guests featured on the podcast’s recent three-part series, “An Examination of Child Care in Iowa.” Host Steve Adams also interviewed Jillian Herink, executive director of the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children, and Ryan Page, child care regulatory program manager and team lead for the Child Care Bureau under the Division of Adult, Children and Family Services within the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Guests pointed out that even prior to the pandemic, Iowa communities struggled to maintain an adequate number of child care providers for working families. According to Wiand, Iowa Women’s Foundation research in 2016-2017 revealed that one in two Iowa children go without access to quality, affordable care. In some parts of the state, five or six children need care for every available opening.
She noted that prior to the pandemic, Iowa suffered a loss of 42% of its child care providers over the five-year period prior to 2016. In recent years, the closure rate had begun to drop. Then the pandemic hit. As more parents work remotely and schools go virtual, the already stressed child care system floundered again. Making the problem worse, child care providers in Iowa are among the lowest-paid workers in the state.
Wiand said the good news is that COVID shines a bright light on the situation, so more people are talking about it now than ever before.
“Now we just need to come together and put some of this talk into action,” she said.
Back to Business Iowa is a collaboration among the Farm, Food and Enterprise Development and Community and Economic Development programs of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Small Business Development Centers. Find the child care series and all prior episodes online.