Lack of accessible child care costing state economy — and possibly Yakima County — significantly

A dysfunctional child care industry is severely costing employers and employees statewide, a new report has discovered.

Research commissioned by a state-mandated task force found that in 2017, a “broken market” cost employers $2 billion from employee turnover related to child care issues.

Another $3.7 billion was lost due to missed opportunities caused by child care disruptions, such as production cuts.

The study found that parents can’t afford quality child care, with Washington parents paying more for infant care than all but two other states nationwide, for example. In some cases, it costs more than a year’s tuition at a state university.

At the same time, providers are poorly paid, creating an undersupply of child care options, the study found. This disrupts employee and employer opportunities, undercutting economic potential.

Yakima is no exception.

Report findings

The report released Monday was created by Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force partners, a group tasked with developing policy recommendations for lawmakers to ensure affordable, high-quality child care for families statewide by 2025. Contributors included Child Care Aware of Washington (CCA) and the state Department of Commerce, among others. It is based on a commissioned survey of 400 families statewide with children younger than 6, conducted by Elway Research Inc.

The research points to a tumultuous state of child care and far-reaching impacts.

“The child care industry is like a public utility — families, employers and our economy depend on it,” the report says. “However, the industry is largely comprised of myriad small businesses operating in a broken market — what economists describe as a market failure characterized by the inability to efficiently allocate resources.”

Just under 50% of surveyed families said it was difficult or very difficult to find, afford and maintain child care, according to the report. Over a quarter of those surveyed quit jobs or schooling because of child care complications. Just under 10% quit or were fired due to child care issues.

Statewide, the report found that turnover and missed work caused by child care issues amounted to over $2 billion lost to the state’s economy.

Combined with the lost opportunity to reinvest funds, the study estimated that access and affordability of child care contributed to roughly $6.5 billion in lost contributions to the state’s gross domestic product.

Child care in Yakima

The study did not break down its findings by county, but it did point to an under supply of child care options statewide.

Yakima, like the rest of the state, has seen the number of child care providers and capacity fluctuate dramatically in recent years, according to data from Child Care Aware.

In 2013, there were 416 local child care providers with a total capacity of 8,590 children. That number dropped to 336 providers in 2017, before rebounding slightly. In 2018, there were 343 child care centers in Yakima County with a capacity of 8,315 children.

Among at least 62% of children younger than 6 in Yakima, all of their parents work, CCA data shows. While the number of households with 6-year-olds is not available, Yakima has roughly 20,000 children younger than age 5, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2018. Applying the same percentage to those younger than 5, that creates 12,400 children locally who may need child care — leaving more than 4,000 children potentially unaccounted for by the child care industry that year.

Access also depends on whether parents can afford child care.

In Yakima, a county with an 18.1% poverty rate, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data, child care accounted for 15% of median household income, at $592 a month for toddler care in 2017, CCA data shows. The cost of infant care was even higher.

Despite the high cost of care, workers in the industry maintain a low pay rate. The average annual income of a child care provider in the county was $24,900 in 2014, the most recent CCA data shows. That’s far below the average pay of a teacher in the county that same year, at roughly $59,000.

What’s next

The report’s findings are expected to impact legislation to make child care more affordable for all families statewide, said Ryan Pricco, state director of advocacy and policy for Child Care Aware.

“What it clearly shows is that not only are families — particularly those without a lot of resources — not getting into child care, but that that’s impacting things beyond what’s best for their kids,” he said. “It impacts their ability to work, be productive at work and the economy overall.”

He also pointed to the value of high-quality child care during a child’s first five years of life, when he said roughly 90% of their brain development occurs. Without this care, the child’s economic contribution down the road could also be hindered, he said. Pricco said just half of child care-aged children in Washington are receiving high-quality care.

While employers have reported struggling to retain skilled employees in recent years, Pricco said the extent to which child care contributed to this problem is made clear by the research.

“Now we have really good estimates of how much that’s actually costing us,” he said.

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