United Way of Central Minnesota (UWCM) believes we can solve the child care crisis by addressing the issues that keep families from reliable, affordable, high-quality care in our region.
The current child care situation in our region, state and nation is sobering. In October 2022, nearly 100,000 U.S. child care workers left to find other kinds of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number may surprise some, but for those who work in the child care profession, that statistic feels anything but shocking. The exodus of child care professionals for better-paying jobs with more benefits and fewer demands has been happening since before the pandemic. The situation has created a care crisis that affects all of us—even those without children who need care.
Late last year, Central Minnesota faced a deficit of over 5,000 open child care slots. Because of this shortfall, many workers—many women caregivers--were forced out of the workforce, causing financial instability and stress for families in the region. Local employers feel the sting of this deficit, and must deal with severe staffing shortages and often limit operational hours. The crisis means we cannot always receive the services we need when we need them, but the fallout of the problem goes beyond inconvenience. Local families’ economic security and our community’s stability are at stake. In 2023, child care costs in Minnesota now rank as the fourth most expensive in the nation. The cost of caring for kids is significant for those who want to join the workforce.
actions mean better results
UWCM is working to change systems and address the root causes of the child care crisis in our region. When we understand the complex structures that drive individual outcomes, we identify the actions we can take to get better results for our community.
Solutions may be short-term or long-term, but come in many forms and from many collaborating sources. UWCM’s Community Child Care Coordinator Sara Hagen observes: “The heart of the child care crisis is not necessarily one thing, and it’s not just a family issue, but affects everyone, whether or not we have children. It’s a multi-tiered, multi-level crisis.” Financial Stability Director Alexis Lutgen agrees: “We are lucky to be part of a community that is invested in making sure we make inroads in stabilizing the situation for Central Minnesota. We have a community that has pulled together, and we are looking at a lot of different initiatives that hopefully will make a difference.”
one part of the solution
Lutheran Social Services Crisis Nursery Program Manager Conni Orth is part of the overall work that addresses some aspects of the problem. Her agency provides free emergency care to families when they most need support. She is familiar with their intense stress when finding safe, high-quality care for their children. “Our main goal at Crisis Nursery is to prevent child abuse and neglect, and we offer care for many reasons. Sometimes parents may need time to look for a job or have an interview. Sometimes their daycare falls through, and if they don’t go to work, they may get fired. The crisis nursery can support families for up to two weeks during the day with free child care.”
Orth says the nursery fills a gap and builds a bridge when a family needs emergency help. She realizes her agency can only respond to regional child care needs in specific ways and acknowledges the child care crisis is a bigger community problem that needs more extensive community solutions. “We know it’s getting more difficult instead of easier. Parents are calling the crisis nursery because they cannot find daycare to go to work.”
a coordinated response
In 2020, amid the height of the COVID pandemic, UWCM dug in and began to identify how to address the crisis locally. A Community Child Care Response Advisory Committee, of which Orth is a part, was formed with representatives from various business, government and non-profit organizations. This committee has conversations about real solutions, funding options and how to tackle the problems from national, statewide and local advocacy levels. With UWCM as a connector, organizations and individuals also started a child care response fund that has provided or maintained child care for over 70 Central Minnesota families. We also continue to fight for equitable compensation and professional recognition for child care workers in the region.
Another critical part of UWCM’s response is providing direct support for child care professionals by hosting monthly continuing education training. These self-paced, online courses help professionals maintain their licensure as they continue to work and handle other responsibilities.
By collaborating with local partners, like the Initiative Foundation, UWCM is developing an online hub of child care business management software that providers may access for help with billing and other administrative paperwork that needs attention alongside caregiving. This shared service network is based on similar tools used in Wisconsin and other parts of the country and allows child care professionals to run their businesses more efficiently. Senator Aric Putnam has championed the development of this tool and seeks funding for its implementation within a pilot program under a new bill headed for an upcoming legislative session.
UWCM also connects with larger organizations and initiates conversations with them about how to subsidize or provide care for their employees’ children. Employers like Integrated Recycling Technologies have successfully developed an in-house child care option. Hagen and Lutgen hope to see this model replicated within other local businesses.
Giving child care professionals the recognition, respect and resources they deserve is essential for staff retention, says Hagen, and one of her most pressing priorities: “People don’t go into this caring work to live at poverty wages and complete piles of paperwork all day long. If we do not recognize child care workers and early childhood educators as the professionals they are and give them the respect they deserve, we won’t be able to attract new talent, and we will be missing out on a lot of caring individuals who are interested in the work and would make excellent teachers and caregivers for our kids. They need to be able to afford to feed their families with the wages they earn.”
Lutgen invites all of us to join UWCM in efforts that will end the child care crisis. She says the first step in that process is to become educated about the issues, donate to the community child care response fund and advocate for policy changes by supporting legislative efforts at the local and statewide levels by contacting our local representatives.
When each of us invests in United Way’s efforts to address the barriers that keep our community from having affordable, quality child care choices, we support a vibrant and productive local workforce that benefits all of us. Orth sums the situation up this way: “The whole nation is in crisis. Child care is a basic human need that we all need support with.”
You can improve the child care crisis in our community by sharing your time and talents. From planning events to serving on a committee, there are endless ways for you to get involved and help further United Way of Central Minnesota’s mission.
Change doesn’t happen on its own. While United Way of Central Minnesota is committed to mobilizing the caring power of our community to address the child care crisis, our community is stronger when we’re working together. To live better, we must LIVE UNITED.