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In Clinton, the small city in western Minnesota where Autumn Morrissette lives, child care is hard to find. When Morrissette got pregnant with her first child in 2020, not even the daycare where she worked could make room for the baby.
“Nobody had infant spots — it’s the hardest thing to come by,” Morrissette said.
She worked at the child care center up until two weeks before she gave birth. She couldn’t afford to stay home indefinitely after the baby arrived because her husband owns a small construction business and his income fluctuates throughout the year.
She picked up some work with a family member when her son was a few months old. Then her husband showed her a Facebook post from another mother in desperate need of child care.
It was from Kathryn Melton in nearby Ortonville, searching for someone to watch her three-month-old son. Melton’s maternity leave was ending and she also couldn’t find care.
Morrissette responded to Melton’s inquiry, and for the past two and a half years has brought her own children — she had a second child in 2022 — to Melton’s home every weekday. The solution is mutually beneficial, they say; Melton has been able to keep her job, and Morrissette is still working in child care, taking home a paycheck and caring for her own children.
Across Minnesota, women with young children are making tough decisions about their careers and family lives as a shortage of child care slots, the rising cost of child care and the social expectation that women prioritize their children push women away from the workforce.
Child care providers, parents and policymakers say they’re dealing with a complex set of overlapping problems. In-home child care providers skew older than the general population and aren’t being replaced as they retire. Child care centers are sparse in rural Minnesota, and across the state they are understaffed, largely because of low wages. At the same time, child care is so expensive that the cost of care, especially for multiple children, can quickly consume one parent’s salary.
The salary on the chopping block is often the mother’s. On average, women earn 82% of what men make. The wage disparity is even greater for Black and Hispanic women, who earn 70 and 65 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Nine out of 10 full-time caregivers are women, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the employment rate for mothers of young children dropped precipitously after steadily increasing over the previous eight years, likely driven by the closure of child care centers. The employment rate for mothers of young children still has not recovered.
The Minnesota Legislature made substantial investments in child care in the most recent legislative session, but the $1 billion in funding over the next two years won’t come close to bridging the gap between the supply and demand for child care slots.
Melton and Morrissette’s arrangement was key in Morrissette’s decision to have a second child — she and her husband didn’t have to worry about finding or paying for child care.
Cost of child care puts middle class moms’ careers on the line
Friends had warned Hannah Kidder, a therapist in Golden Valley, about the cost of child care.
Still, “It’s really hard to prepare yourself for the financial shock,” she said.
When Kidder’s daughter was born in December 2022, no infant spots were available at the affordable daycare in their area, but there was a spot at a more expensive child care center. They took the more expensive spot, and Kidder returned to work part time in April.
Her salary just covered the cost of the daycare, so she recently returned to full-time work. She’s pursuing licensure, which would mean more flexibility and a higher salary.
“If I want any hope of being able to have a second child and working, I need to get my license,” Kidder said.
Her husband earns a higher salary working as a recruiter, and while he would love to stay home with their daughter, the family wouldn’t be able to live on Kidder’s salary alone, she said.
After having their first child in 2019, Ellory Roske and her husband knew that they wanted to have another. Both work full-time: Roske in the human resources department of a tech company, her husband as an engineer.
“We were like, ‘Whatever we have to do to make the finances work, we’ll figure it out,’” Roske said.
They put their names on waitlists for child care centers, but could only find a part-time infant slot at the day care center their older son attended.
Roske doesn’t have family in the area who could help, so she considered reducing her hours at work so she could care for the baby part-time.
In that scenario, after taxes, and without contributing to insurance or retirement, Roske would take home about $3,000 per year, she said.
This is the kind of disincentive that is keeping some workers — nearly all of them women — out of the labor pool, which economists say is holding back Minnesota’s economy.
Fortunately, the Roske family were able to find a more affordable in-home day care for their infant son. They kept their older child at his child care center, which allowed Roske to continue working.
“It was obvious that if anybody needed to stay home for any time it would be me,” Roske said. “It was really stressful to think about. This could upend my career. It could upend my identity in a lot of ways, because I am proud to be a full-time working mom. I think contributing in that way sets a good example for our kids.”
Roske said the obstacles to women working illustrate that the system isn’t working: “I have done all the things that our society tells you you should do in order to have a family and be working, and it still was almost out of our grasp.”
Being a single mother adds another layer of difficulty to the issue of child care, said Karla Benson Rutten, executive director of the Jeremiah Program in St. Paul, a nonprofit organization that helps lift single mothers and their children out of poverty.
The Jeremiah Program has child care centers at both its St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses.
Child care is a core tenant of the program because it not only frees up mothers to pursue an education or work, but also because quality early childhood education improves outcomes for children, Benson Rutten said.
Brenda Zahrbock, who runs a 14-child daycare out of her home, said she’s often parents’ last hope for child care.
“I’m the last one on the list, because my last name starts with ‘Z,’” she said at the child care round table in Clinton.
Zahrbock told the elected officials in attendance that she supports loosening some licensing requirements, some of which she feels are excessively strict. That would make it easier to enter the industry. She also wants experienced caretakers in good standing, and with adequate space, to be able to care for more children.
If she hires another caretaker, she would only be allowed to add two more children to her daycare, she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the teacher shortage at child care centers around the country. Staffing rates still have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. As of June 2022, there were 3% fewer people working in child care in Minnesota compared to February 2020.
Some of the $1 billion in taxpayer money dedicated to child care will go towards replacing a pandemic-era federal program that boosted early educator pay, a move expected to prevent Minnesota from facing the fate of other states: immediate closure of many child care facilities.
The Legislature also raised the number of subsidized child care slots for low-income Minnesota families by about 19,000, bringing the total to an estimated 55,000. Lawmakers also raised the reimbursement rates for providers offering subsidized slots.
Many of the state programs have income caps, however, meaning the subsidized slots aren’t available for many middle class families.