It took a year of phone calls, Google searches, multiple waiting lists, hopes, prayers, and a detailed spreadsheet for Krissy Kulmann to land a spot in a Boise daycare for her son.
Kulmann and her husband Ben found out they were expecting a child in April of 2019 and the hunt began. They started with daycares close to their homes in NW Boise and eventually sprawled out to anywhere in Boise. No matter where they called, every place had a waitlist with little guarantee of placement.
Even with a higher budget than many couples, they were striking out. Eventually, they heard it took a recommendation from families already using daycare to climb your way up a list.
“It was unsettling because no one could guarantee us anything even if we were willing to throw money at the situation,” Kulmann said. “Some of the places required a deposit just to sit on their waitlist to even be considered. That could cost anywhere from $20 to $50.”
This is not an uncommon situation. Idaho families in all corners of the state are struggling to find child care services for their kids at all, let alone at prices they can afford to pay. The lack of options becomes even more dire in the Treasure Valley’s strained housing market, where low-income and middle class families often have to rely on two incomes to make ends meet.
Thousands in the gap
A needs assessment released in February from the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research found 50% of Idahoans live in childcare deserts. These are areas without any licensed childcare services, or for every spot in a facility, there are more than three kids per space.
To put the cost of childcare in perspective: The needs assessment found the average cost of childcare for a four-year-old and an infant is $13,927 per year, or a quarter of the income for an average Idaho family. Childcare payments for one kid can be nearly as much as it would cost to rent an apartment, or more if you have multiple children.
In early 2020, there were 55,845 spaces in licensed childcare facilities throughout Idaho. But, according to data from think tank Bipartisan Policy Center, there were 74,600 kids in need of care. This left 20,663 in the gap, forcing their parents to either leave the workforce, use unlicensed day care operated out of private residences or find some other arrangement.
It’s hard enough for families with stable incomes, like the Kulmann’s, to find child care, but the gap hits Idaho’s working poor even harder. Households above the poverty line, but still struggling to afford household necessities are ineligible for child care subsidies from the federal government to help them cover the costs.
These families, known as asset limited, income constrained, employed or ALICE, were also most likely to be essential workers during the pandemic or to have had impacts to their income. In 2020, a third of ALICE families in need of childcare had their hours cut, a job loss or some other disruption to their income due to COVID-19.
And this costs all Idahoans, not just the families looking for care. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry estimated problems with accessing childcare costs the Gem State’s economy $479 million a year. This includes $414 million in costs to employers due to absent employees and turnover rates and $65.4 million in lost tax revenue.
IAEYC Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer said childcare has long been left up to families to handle themselves or government to help with subsidies for the lowest income Americans, but now the private sector is getting involved. She said large employees are discussing stipends for employees or even on-site childcare while employees are on shift.
“What we’re doing is we’re having lots of conversations about business leaders across the state because the lightbulb is going off about childcare,” Oppenheimer said. “Now they’re starting to connect the dots and realize that if they provide support and a piece of this puzzle that it will benefit their business and our economy eventually.”
‘It’s a punishment’
Alisa Crews is on her second battle for child care.
She struggled to find child care 20 years ago when she had her first daughter, and now that she has another son and daughter under six not much changed. Both she and her husband have solid, stable incomes, but they are still paying a high price to have their kids taken care of during the day. Even with Crews’ Micron salary, a huge portion of it is going to cover her son’s daycare and a tutor to help her six-year-old daughter with online schooling while Crews and her husband work.
“If I stay home as a mom, or even if my husband decides to stay, it’s a punishment,” she said. “You have to quit your career to stay home with kids for five or six years and then you’re basically a new employee all over again.”
There are more barriers to child care than just affordability and finding a spot. Many companies and careers require 12-hour shifts, sometimes on the weekend or during swing or night shifts when all of the child care providers are closed. Crews said a 12-hour shift at Micron means she would need 13 hours of care to cover her travel time to and from work.
The IAEYC needs assessment found 81% of child care providers are only open Monday through Friday.
The struggle to find child care that won’t break the bank has gotten so bad Crews hears from young adults it is becoming a deterrent to starting a family.
“I think honestly now, the younger generation, they don’t want to have more than one kid because they can’t afford it and they see what struggles their parents are going through,” Crews said. “People don’t want to have kids because they see other people just worrying about where to drop kids off. We need to figure out something for the next generation that’s better than this.”
Fixing this problem is complicated
Child care operators are small businesses with high overhead costs due to the amount of staff required to care for all of the children, materials, cleaning supplies, and all of the other costs of running a business. They aren’t publicly funded like K-12 education, meaning they don’t have the infusion of public dollars schools do to help cover the cost of caring for the next generation.
Child care providers often make low wages themselves, with some providers paying teachers and caregivers less than starting wages at an Amazon warehouse or other big box store. Beth Oppenheimer said the industry is constantly struggling with keeping pay competitive and retaining strong employees with low wages, but businesses often can’t increase their rates because the families they serve are already stretched thin.
“Childcare providers cannot make less and families cannot pay anymore,” Oppenheimer said.
Kayla Hardman is one of the co-owners of The Barnyard in Harris Ranch, which opened in 2019. Her business is licensed to care for 203 children in different age groups, but they still have a waitlist with no openings for infants until August 2022.
[2019: The Barnyard set for E. Boise]
She said they are able to charge higher prices because they are located in one of the higher earning zip codes in Boise, but it’s still a challenge to compensate employees fairly and stay profitable.
“Do you offer some kind of preschool program where you have circle time and learning time where you’re getting them ready for elementary school?” she said. “Then you want a different caliber for a teacher, so you want a teacher who can teach a 4-year-old their letters and letter sounds. Do you want to pay someone who has a college degree $12 an hour or $14 an hour to do that?”
Even with less than two years since The Barnyard opened its doors, Hardman said they are looking into an expansion to meet demand. But, the challenge is the same one facing anyone trying to develop anything in Boise. How do you contend with the white-hot real estate market?
“There’s no space to lease,” she said. “You can build, but a piece of property in Harris Ranch is $650,000. You build on a one-acre lot or one-and-a-half-acre lot and then you’re looking at a $3 million project.”
Want quality? You’ll pay a price
Not all childcare is created equal.
Anyone in Idaho can care for up to six children without a license or any government oversight. Some cities have slightly more stringent licensing, but Oppenheimer said even their extra rules lag behind standard practices in other states to monitor how kids are taken care of.
Parents hoping to place their children in daycare with an educational curriculum, experienced teachers and other bonuses will have to pay an even higher price. Kulmann and her husband searched high and low for a daycare with amenities like a child-led environment, open and sunny interiors and top notch health and safety. Even though they were willing to pay a premium, they still struggled to find a place.
They began to get desperate after their maternity and paternity leave elapsed in the spring of 2020, just in time for COVID-19 to sweep into the United States and throw everything into disarray. They took care of their son at home and worked full time for three months before breaking down and hiring a nanny for $15 an hour.
Right before their nanny needed to return to college, Kulmann got a call that a French immersion daycare they had been on a waitlist for was finally opening its doors and had a spot. It’s pricey, with their payment for one child coming in at roughly $1,000 a month, but Kulmann said it turned out to be their dream care situation for their son.
“We are financially in a place where we could make that decision,” Kulmann said. “It wasn’t our preference, but should that ever come to where we are at again, I don’t think our careers are the things that are going to go. It’s going to be some financial things we’re going to have to give up.”