SHERIDAN — The average child care worker in Wyoming makes $11.14 per hour, and 53% of Wyoming’s child care workforce receive public benefits.
“That is a huge problem. The really young, and the really old — the bookends in our society — there is a problem on each side,” said Becca Steinhoff, director for Wyoming Kids First, a private nonprofit in Casper that advocates for child care centers across the state. “It is difficult work and long hours, and there are a lot of challenges beyond the economic reality of being an early childhood educator.”
It’s also expensive to run a child care center, and many parents find the cost of child care a source of anxiety.
“These issues are all connected,” Steinhoff said. “How is it that everyone is paying so much for child care but no one is making money doing it?”
Challenges in running a quality child care center outside having an adequately educated staff include sick children, staffing issues, ensuring all toys are safe and clean, incident reporting, open communication and trust and licensure and inspection.
Clint Hanes with the Wyoming Department of Family Services said to be licensed, a child care center will be assessed for health and safety risks in any place that children may be.
For example, all electrical outlets must be properly covered, access to stairs must be blocked and, if there are firearms in the location, they must be secured and locked away from children. Cleaning supplies must also be locked away.
DFS does provide some funding through its child care and development block grant to Wyoming Kids First to improve the supply and quality of early care and education for infants and toddlers.
Derek Grant with the Department of Agriculture said his agency completes inspections to ensure all food is properly prepared and served in child care centers across the state.
“We make sure their kitchen is compliant with regulations,” Grant said. “We work alongside the Department of Family Services, the State Fire Marshall’s Office and other groups to do inspections.”
Grant’s office performs inspections once a year, and more so if the risk at a center is higher.
“The goal is that people do what it takes place to keep the food safe, and making sure these kids are eating a safe food supply,” he said. “What they are serving isn’t as concerning to us as how they are serving it.”
In part because of the costs of an educated staff, and a facility that meets appropriate standards, nonprofit centers across the nation run with a margin of 3% above costs, according to “America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out.” For-profit centers have a profit margin of 5% above costs. All centers depend on parent fees to cover their costs.
In many industries, labor can be saved through technology. Machines are invented and productivity increases. Early child care is different. Many adults are required to provide adequate child care, and, in fact, “America’s Child Care Problem” predicts that with the passage of time, child care costs will rise relative to the other things families buy.
The demand for labor makes child care so expensive, and yet, that workforce makes relatively low wages.
Child care subsidies do not cover the cost of high-quality care, and they fail to reach the majority of families in need, according to 2019 data on Wyoming’s child care industry from the Center for American Progress. Preschool programs are underfunded, and rarely provide universal access for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Wyoming pays public school teachers in the K-12 teachers incredibly well, as we should, Steinhoff said.
“That speaks to the broader sense of valuing education, but that has not yet extended into the early childhood sphere,” she said. “Part of the challenge is that anyone who gets a formal education in early childhood is drawn to the school districts where they are making three times more per hour than they are in early childhood centers.
“The reality of our workforce is that there are individuals with higher education in early childhood, and it is typically because they are women and they have a spouse or a partner who can accommodate their hobby of early childhood,” Steinhoff said. “It is a devastating thing to admit.”
Nearly a year ago, Wyoming was ranked 49th by the Bipartisan Policy Center on its early childhood systems.
“That is not good. We have some work to do in terms of state alignment and support for early childhood,” Steinhoff said. “Part of Wyoming Kids First is to sit in that space and say, what can we do about our youngest children and families, and making those services accessible and higher quality.”
Some suggest policies that will help parents of job-holding parents to find quality, enriched care that is affordable. This could be achieved by government subsidization.
Wyoming Kids First has been an advocate for systems and policy change at the state level, and also works at a community level to find out what each community needs.
“We have done a lot of work at the community level to see what that looks like locally. It can be a variety of different things, because every community needs a different thing,” Steinhoff said.
Wyoming Kids First can facilitate those conversations, reinvigorating the discussion. Steinhoff said a recent documentary, “No Small Matter,” offers a well-rounded look at the challenges in child care facing the nation.
She said Wyoming Kids First is planning to do screenings of the film around the state.
“The film gives us this platform for beginning the dialogue, but we know that communities will contextualize and take that dialogue on on their own,” she said.