DES MOINES -- Families that seek more accessible and affordable child care should be helped by legislation approved this year by state lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders say.
Not all legislation designed to address a given issue accomplishes its goal, but in this case, groups that have advocated for programs to make child care more accessible and affordable to Iowans say the package of bills approved this year by the Iowa Legislature should do just that.
“We’re really happy with the progress that’s been made on child care in Iowa for those families that need support,” said Deann Cook, executive director of United Ways of Iowa. Cook said the organization has been working on the issue for more than a decade. “It’s a huge win.”
Advocates say the cost of child care is impacting low-income families who cannot afford it, and is keeping others out of the workforce, as they find it is cheaper to not work than pay for expensive child care.
In Iowa, the average cost for one year of infant child care in a center is $10,743, according to the advocacy and resource organization Child CareAware of America. That is nearly 18% of the state’s median income, according to federal census data, and more than the cost of tuition and fees for Iowa students who attend the state’s public universities.
The annual cost of an infant plus a 4-year-old in a center is $19,599, according to Child CareAware. That is 32% of the state’s median household income.
State lawmakers this year passed multiple bills designed to address child care cost and access.
- House File 302 addresses the so-called child care cliff, where a worker begins to earn more income and thus loses eligibility for child care assistance. The bill creates a more gradual phase-out of eligibility for assistance as a worker’s income rises.
- Senate File 619 is a wide-ranging tax policy bill that includes a doubling of income eligibility for a state child care tax credit. Currently, households earning less than $45,000 are eligible for a roughly $170 tax credit on child care costs; the bill doubles that income threshold to $90,000.
- House File 260 increases the number of children that can be served in a home setting from five to six, so long as at least one is school-aged.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has already signed House File 260 into law; the others have passed the Iowa Legislature and are awaiting the governor’s final decision.
Charlina Hurt, 55, of Cedar Rapids, has been a childcare provider for 36 years --- long enough to care for a second generation of some families.
“They already know me, so it’s amazing,” said the owner of Sunshine Home Child Care Center in Cedar Rapids.
As a Child Development Home C with two providers, Hurt is limited to 16 children, with four of those kids needing care only part time. Right now, she has 13 children in her center because she’s holding spots open for current families with babies on the way.
She supports the new bills that provide more financial assistance to families. The bill that addresses the child care cliff is especially helpful, she said.
“In the past, you make more money and they cut you off. By the time you pay for child care, you’re coming out worse than you were before,” Hurt said. “I’ve had clients in the past turn down a raise or a promotion because they would lose their child care assistance.”
She’s less supportive of the new law that increases the number of children allowed in a child-care home setting.
“It’s not beneficial to those of us who work hard to become registered,” Hurt said. “The ones not registered, (the state Department of Human Services) doesn’t come out and do checks on them. You’re basically giving them benefits to stay unregistered and, to me, that doesn’t seem fair.”
Sunshine Home Child Care Center kept most of its clients during the COVID-19 pandemic because even if the parents were working from home, they still needed child care. Besides one week when Hurt was quarantining because of a possible exposure to the virus, she did not have to close the center nor did she have any cases among children or staff. Now that Iowans are heading back to their offices, she’s getting more calls from panicky parents trying to find care.
“I turn down five clients calling me a week,” she said.
Cook said the doubling of the income threshold for the tax credit will help more families that are earning income, but not enough to afford child care. The United Way has conducted research on those types of families, calling them ALICE: an individual or family who is asset-limited, income-constrained, and employed.
“They’re working. They’re churning it out every single month. But they’re coming up short,” Cook said. “The (expanded tax credit) captures so many more families.”
Business interests are applauding the approved legislation as well, saying it will help employers find more workers.
“For a number of years, even pre-pandemic, we have continued to hear that talent is the No. 1 issue for our members. They need more of it, and we know from recent census numbers that Iowa’s not growing quite as quickly as the jobs that our members are creating,” said Andrea Woodard, senior vice president of government relations and public policy for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a coalition of central Iowa businesses and chambers of commerce.
“Child care access and affordability is often a huge piece of that, and with a population in a state that hinges heavily on two parents working outside the home, child care is increasingly important in our state,” Woodard said.
While advocates and stakeholders applauded the significant progress made on child care access and affordability this year, they caution that more work remains. Hurt thinks the state should allow some registered care providers to take on more children --- if the provider has a good track record and strong parent reviews. Cook said she would like to see lawmakers to raise income eligibility thresholds for other programs.
Meantime, the legislation that was passed this year represents a strong start, she said.
“It has been a difficult more than a year (with the COVID-19 pandemic), so to see something work out and be so positive for so many people in such a rough time is such a great feeling,” she said.