Waiting lists in eastern Iowa are getting longer. They can create logjams that hold back economic progress and early childhood education. At times, able-bodied parents willing to work cannot keep a job. Even — at times — simple economics say parents are better off staying home than joining the workforce. 

Access to affordable childcare is a growing issue, says Gwen Deming, the director of Clinton/Jackson Early Childhood Iowa. The organization operates with a board of directors and provides resources to support healthy parenting, healthcare services and strives to increase access and opportunities for quality preschool and childcare experiences. 

“In Iowa, 75 percent of all families have two parents working full time,” Deming said. Those numbers are higher than the national average, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 61.6 percent of all families fall under that category. 

Chelsea VanDaele, recruitment and retention specialist with Child Care Resource and Referral of Southeast Iowa, echoed those sentiments. She works with childcare providers and helps them become registered with the state. She also provides advocacy, education and referrals for parents looking for childcare. 

“Across the state there’s a childcare crisis,” she said. “There’s a shortage of affordable care, as well as accessibility for parents. There is not enough for all the working parents.”

Quality care

“Finding that care is difficult because for the childcare centers, it takes a lot of money to run a quality enter,” Deming said. “Finding workers at the amount they can pay is tough. A lot of these people are being paid near minimum wage.”

Executive director of Maquoketa’s Sunshine Early Learning Center Kelly Bartels says keeping her center staffed is a challenge. 

“Right now we have a good staff, but sometimes people come to work for a couple weeks and leave,” Bartels said. “But a lot of them have been here for quite a while.”

“There’s too many prongs to it,” Deming explained. “You don’t want the cost to be too high, but you want to be able to pay your workers, because you want them to want to be there.”

To alleviate a bit of the bottleneck at daycare providers, Deming offered a possible solution. 

“I think we need to value early childhood care, which is most important from 0 to 5 years of age. We need to support parents who want to stay home,” she said. “We give folks money who go out and work, why can’t get give to parents who want to stay home for a couple years?”

She said a federally mandated paid time off for family-provided childcare could be an option. She also considers it a state-level legislative issue. 

“You’re supposed to bond with your child and make them feel secure and nurtured so they grow up to be physically and emotionally well. Our country doesn’t do that.”

Bartels said parents usually stay home with infant babies, but once the child grows a bit, the interaction with peers is valuable.

“Once they come to a center they interact. They learn faster when other kids are around,” she said. 

Bartels emphasized that separation can be a relief at times to parents who can become stressed by the responsibility. 

VanDaele works with communities to gauge their local needs. She says each community has its own needs. Childcare Resource & Referral of Southeast Iowa has engaged in discussion with Andy Sokolovich with the Clinton Regional Development Corporation to gauge the needs in the Clinton area. She says while some of the shortfalls can be fixed with state legislation, waiting on those improvements to be implemented is not an option. 

Accessible Care

Sunshine is at capacity; their waiting lists are filling up. The same can be said for Creative Learning Center in DeWitt.

“Our waiting lists are really long,” said the center’s director, Mindy Chapman. “That’s not always the case, but our list for 2- and 3-year-olds is long, and our infants are a close second. Our school-age program is full. Right now, we have no more room for infants or toddlers.”

Those waiting lists can at times have the names of children not yet born, or whose parents are ready to enter the workforce. 

“Because three-fourths of families are working, and the economy is rough, I think parents need to work more,” Deming said. “That’ll put those kids in childcare. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Either not work or not have children.”

In-home babysitters are scattered across the region. They can provide quality care as well. 

“Anyone can provide care for up to five children without being registered with the state,” VanDaele explained. “We encourage them to become registered child development homes.”

An in-home care provider can become registered through the state after an inspection, training including first aid and CPR, background checks for everyone in the home, and fingerprinting. The home also must be modified to fit within state regulations. 

VanDaele says there are many benefits once that certification is completed.

Affordable Care

Once an in-home provider is registered and licensed, they can accept more than five children. They can also receive subsidies that are given through the state for those on a fixed income.

“They can also participate in different programs where they get reimbursed for meals and snacks they serve,” she said. “[Approved care providers] can also participate in the [voluntary] Iowa’s Quality Rating System, and that shows they are going above and beyond. And there are some bonuses with that.”

Right now, there are 27 licensed child care providers in the Jackson and Clinton County area. Recertification through the Iowa Department of Human Services occurs every two years. 

The state subsidizes childcare for families who fit within certain income brackets, but only if they place their children in one of the 27 centers, which may or may not have openings. 

That, at times, can de-incentivize a parent entering the workforce, because as soon as that income is eclipsed, the help disappears, making the choice an economical one as well as a quality of care. This funding cliff is another issue that must be addressed at the state level, VanDaele believes.

“Childcare can sometimes cost as much as state college for a year,” Deming said. “That’s where we’re at. And yet, when you look at the centers, they aren’t making money on that. They have insurance, and a building. Around 70-80 percent of costs go to the people who take care of the kids, but yet those people aren’t getting rich.”

“We try to raise our rates only a little bit every couple of years,” Chapman echoed. “People don’t realize all the overhead for a place like ours. Our payroll alone is half our budget. And people in childcare don’t make very much money to start with.”

While the situation in Eastern Iowa is not yet considered a “childcare desert,” according to Deming, it’s not improving.

“There are places in Iowa where there are zero childcare openings,” she said. “What are people going to do with their children? It is a very big concern.”