Childcare Crisis creating economic hardship in Niobrara County

Heather Goddard/ For the Lusk Herald Sara Kunerth a caregiver at the Niobrara County School District daycare and her daughter Norah at the District daycare facility

LUSK – When Robin Johnson and her husband moved to Lusk, in September of 2016, they both had good jobs lined up. He was to start work at Thompson Seed East of town and she also had a position lined up. When her job fell through due to in-house politics, Johnson assumed it would be no big deal to find another position, she was right, but what she didn’t plan for was the difficulty they would have finding childcare and then paying for it. 

At that time both of the licensed childcare centers in Niobrara County were at capacity and not accepting any more children. In addition, Robin had a hard time finding a job that paid her enough to afford childcare. It was a vicious circle. By December of 2016, she made the decision to stay home with her children and take on an additional child or two in order to supplement their income. Robin never intended to find a career in childcare, she was simply trying to take care of her own kids and provide some income for her family. 

This scenario is extremely common in Niobrara County, a county which, as of the last Wyoming Department of Family Service Community assessment published in 2017 for the years 2014-2016, showed only three licensed child care providers with a maximum capacity for 74 children(age availability unknown) in the entire county, with two of those licenses being held by the same provider in two different facilities. According to the same report, in 2016 a total of 277 children under the age of 12 (11 percent of the entire population) were potentially competing for those 74 spots. There were almost four times as many children as there were slots available.

Even factoring the assumption that any child over the age of six only needed part-time care for after school and holidays, combined with the fact that some of those children were at home with one parent as a conscious choice by the family, this is still a huge discrepancy between supply and demand, with the availability only meeting 26.7 percent of the potential need. These numbers alone would be depressing, but factoring in the definition of “affordable” childcare, and the figures become even more daunting. In a county where 24.04 percent of 0-17 children live under 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and a median annual income is only $40,640, which means that at least a full one-third of all households live with less than $40,000, any childcare seems like it would, by far, overextend a family.  

A 2016 study conducted by the Wyoming Women’s foundation found that to even meet the self-sufficiency standards in Niobrara county for a family with two adults, one pre-schooler and one school age child the family income must be equal to or greater than $44,832. The Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates how much income families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet at a minimally adequate level without public or private assistance. This means that the hourly wage of one worker, or combined hourly of two must be at least $23.35/hour. In a county where the known median hourly rate is typically less than the median of $21.16, even those in the middle are still not reaching the sufficiency standard.

A lack of affordable, high quality childcare is not unique to Niobrara County or even Wyoming, and solutions to this problem are complex and range back over the last 30-40 years as the United States has experienced a fundamental shift in the structure of our workforce and childcare situations. Where once families relied on a stay-at-home-parent and multi-generational caregiving, the burden of raising America’s youth has been placed increasingly on schools and outside the home childcare givers and centers. 

It is widely agreed that “Childcare is the economy’s invisible driver” (Wharton School of Business, 2014). As stated in an article from Wharton regarding the crisis in childcare in America and its impact on the economy, “For one, the tremendous strain on household budgets dents consumption, which in turn hinders growth. Second, the burden of dealing with (and paying for) child care is seen as a culprit that forces women to drop out of the labor market. And finally, the difficulties associated with child care are for some a deterrent to have children in the first place. The issue there, of course, is that in pure economic terms, today’s babies are the workforce of the future.”

This can be seen so clearly in Lusk and the Niobrara County area. Families that would normally have two wage earners resulting in a greater amount of spendable income to funnel back into local economy and support growth within the county and state, no longer have this flexible income. Either they continue at a two-earner rate and essentially work to pay the bills and for childcare or one of them stays home to raise the children and the other works. Either scenario significantly restricts the amount of money the family unit is able to invest back into the local economy on both a large scale (rent, mortgages, vehicle purchases, utilities, etc.) and on a smaller scale (small businesses, entertainment, non-profits, etc.). 

The other hidden economic factor contributing to the childcare crisis is the one linked directly to the childcare workers themselves. Typically childcare workers in the U.S. are in the bottom 10 percent of adult wage earners even though a full 70 percent of them have a college degree of some kind. Burnout is so high in this field that it experiences a 54 percent turnover rate (Whitbook, Howes, Darrah & Friedman). Low pay combined with a lack of benefits and few breaks leads workers in this field to leave it for more lucrative pay and benefit scenarios, which also leads to a lack of experience in this field. 

Those that do work for more than five years in childcare experience burnout rates similar to those of other care-giving work like teaching and nursing, but without the economic compensation of other industries. The burnout doesn’t even come from the kids. 78 percent of childcare workers say it is their direct work with children that keeps them positive and engaged it is the lack of appropriate wages combined with lack of respect and understanding of their profession that leads to burnout. 

Speaking with Robin she said she would never have guessed how difficult being a childcare giver (particularly in home) would be for her and her family. Where she lived previously she had valued her caregiver and paid appropriately, but was completely unaware of the emotional and physical toll that being a full-time childcare provider takes on a person. Caregivers are often the last to be paid when a family has more bills than they have income, but without that caregiver there would be no income, it is a terrible position to put our babysitters in. 

The drain of never knowing if that paycheck will be on time, or even there from week to week makes it difficult to find financial incentive in providing care for children. Combine this stress with having your own children to care for and it is no wonder the burnout rate is even higher for in-home caregivers than larger center-based caregivers.

In Niobrara County, grandparents and in-home givers try their best to bridge the gap. There are more than 12 households providing care to an additional child or two. Some started out as a way to supplement income like Robin, many others however, saw and need and were just trying to do someone a favor by watching their kids but once word got out that they were “babysitting” the demand grew beyond their capacity. And they still don’t make a “minimum wage.” 

So what is a community to do? In 2017, the Niobrara County School District took the steps to open a day care that is accessible to their employees. It provides childcare for the duration of the school day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for district employees only. In the one and a half years it has been open the daycare has had a waitlist the entire time. 

They are the only employer in Niobrara County to take an active approach to helping their workforce. In 2015, a community committee was formed of concerned individuals to try and address the childcare shortage. Even without the numbers and data in front of them they knew it was a problem and knew it was having an economic impact on Niobrara county. Even after meeting for six months the committee had no solution and no authority to move forward with any of the proposals they had given to the Town or County. The committee disbanded. 

At the time of this article, The COO of the Niobrara Community Hospital and the Mayor of Lusk, Doug Lytle, are both working to come up with a viable plan to solve this crisis situation. These two entities are both well aware the future of our communities is dependent on the ability of young families to stay and flourish, which is being held back by the lack of affordable childcare. This pressure mounts as the last child care center will close its doors in 2019. 

The caregivers operating this long-time community staple are moving on to another step in their lives. They have given selflessly for years and now find it is time for them to move in a different direction. When this daycare closes, there will be no other option for parents in Niobrara County.  

As a whole, Niobrara Country has done very little compared to other developed countries to ensure high-quality, affordable childcare. It has now come down to a crisis of care that is going to have long-term economic and public health ramifications. Some of the solution must come in the form of a collective shift in viewpoint, “At the heart of the issue,” adds MIT’s Bailyn, “is that in other countries, children are viewed as a social good. But children in this country are seen as an individual choice,” she notes. “If you choose to have them, you’ve got to take care of them.”  While children may be an individual choice, part of the reason people still chose to raise their children in small-town America is because they feel they still have a  village to help them.” 

The Niobrara County community including the Towns of Van Tassell, Lance Creek, Manville and Lusk will need to address this crisis, one whose economic impacts are already being felt. 

Robin says one of the children she watches will be leaving because his parents will be relocating to another town, one where childcare is more readily available, as are jobs with wages that allow them to pay for childcare. Even Robin and her husband have considered moving to another community but he likes his job and they are happy with the community as a whole. 

The childcare crisis in Niobrara County is not unique, but it is growing and a real, multi-faceted solution that is supported by all employers across all industries is going to be necessary if the community is going to move forward and thrive. Maybe Niobrara County can lead the way, instead of trailing behind.

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