SALT LAKE CITY — In a perfect world, Ashleigh would be able to stay at home and "watch her kids grow up."
But her husband's $14 per hour wage as a foreman/maintenance man isn't enough to make ends meet for the family of four.
Ashleigh, 23, has thought about working at night so she could be home during the day with her 3-year-old and 1-year-old, but it's hard to walk away from her receptionist job that pays $11.50 an hour — a decent wage in Kanab, a small tourism-fueled town nestled on the Utah/Arizona border.
So Ashleigh turns to friends, family members and sometimes friends of friends to watch her kids from 9 to 5, because without a professional child care center in the area, "everybody’s always looking for someone," she says. In the last year, her children have been to five different care givers. She asked that her last name not be used because of the personal nature of her comments.
There are potentially more than 152,000 young children who need daily care in Utah, yet the state has only 41,144 slots, according to ChildCareAware.org.
Among Utah parents with a 5-year-old child (66 percent of whom had other children as well), 43 percent say it is difficult to find affordable care, while 30 percent of mothers report that they and/or their spouse adopted a reduced work schedule because of child care issues, a recent survey conducted by the University of Utah's Department of Family and Consumer Studies for the Department of Workforce Services' Office of Child Care shows. The results of the survey will be officially released next month.
When women can't find child care, whether because it's unavailable or unaffordable, some turn to jobs that may pay less but offer greater mothering flexibility, while others leave the workforce entirely, forgoing their current salary as well as future earning potential. Those factors contribute heavily to the gender wage gap, with Utah's being one of the widest in the nation, though the figure requires some explanation. While closing the wage gap will take work on many fronts, experts say a major step would be increasing the availability, affordability and quality of child care.
In Utah, that means recognizing that mothers who want to stay home and raise their children are lucky, because not every mother has that choice, says Katie Ricord, executive director of Utah Association for the Education of Young Children. From there, the conversation can move to ensuring the highest quality care possible, which not only benefits the kids, but elevates the profession and supports the caregivers, who are predominantly female and among the lowest paid employees in the country — another contributing factor to the wage gap.
"Investing in our children is the most important investment we can make," says Cathleen Zick, an economist in the department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah and associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science. "If we're short-changing our kids, we're shortsighted about what we want the future to be."
Care in Utah
To understand the need for child care in Utah, consider a few numbers:
Another 43,803 children under 6 live in single-parent families where mom or dad works.
When parents need help with care, many turn to family or friends, but the rest vie for spots within 319 licensed day care centers and 767 licensed family child care programs, where people are licensed to watch children in their own home, according to the Department of Workforce Service's Office of Child Care.
Yet nearly one in three child care centers and one in five family child care homes has a wait list, say state officials.
Trying to find licensed care for a newborn to 12-month-old child is especially difficult, with wait lists often longer than a year. There are also, as Ashleigh has experienced, child care "deserts" throughout the state: Four counties in Utah have no licensed providers, and another 10 counties offer fewer than 10 licensed providers.
Currently, the kids stay with Ashleigh's mother-in-law three days a week and another woman the other two days.
Even when parents can find care, it's often cost prohibitive.
The average cost for center-based infant care in Utah ranges from $7,000 to more than $9,000 a year, according to Care.com and ChildCareAware.org. Utah is also one of 33 states where the cost for a year of care is more than an average year of college.
In August 2017, Utah helped 6,868 families and 13,063 children by providing child-care subsidies — federal government grants to help low-income families pay for care. Of those families, nearly 93 percent were led by single parents.
The subsidy amount varies based on the number of children and their ages and the parent's salary, and has a work requirement of 15 hours a week.
"I just think there’s a misperception that low-income people don’t work," says Tracey Gruber, director of the Office of Child Care in the Department of Workforce Services. "They do work, and they need child care, and we are able to help support them in their employment."
Ashleigh would love a child care subsidy and, as a lower-income family, she knows they would qualify. But because everyone in Kanab provides care "under the radar" without state licensure, they aren't eligible to accept subsidy payments.
Usually she pays around $3 per kid per hour for child care — though her mother-in-law tends for free. If finances weren't such an issue, Ashleigh says she'd work part-time, to focus more on her kids and online school — she's leaning toward being an ultrasound technician.
"I want to get a career that will make me more money so I can be home more ... with my kids and actually raise them, not have somebody else raise them," Ashleigh says. "And be able to afford to take them to day care and not have to worry about if we can afford dinner or anything else."
Elaine Rixe, 51, has loved providing in-home and center-based child care for nearly 20 years, but she's always just relied on her mom intuition and in-the-trenches training from keeping three sons alive to adulthood.
Yet, last September, she and her youngest son started their freshman years together at Salt Lake Community College, where Rixe is studying to get her associate's degree in family and human studies.
She's one of 24 women on the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Utah scholarship at SLCC, a team-funded scholarship aimed at current child care providers to increase their education, compensation and devotion to the child care field, says Ricord with the Utah Association for the Education of Young Children, the group that offers the T.E.A.C.H. scholarship along with support from Utah's Office of Child Care.
While the issue of child care availability looms large in the national discussion, experts emphasize that just opening more slots may not be that helpful — and could even be potentially harmful — unless the care is high quality, and that "high quality doesn't come from having the best play materials, but the most educated staff," says Ricord.
Currently, Utah doesn't require child care providers to have any higher education — though some programs independently require a college degree for lead teachers, such as the government-funded Head Start preschools. Without degreed care givers, appropriate developmental teaching may not happen, pay will remain low, and turnover rates stay high, all which lead to poor outcomes for kids.
To remedy that, the T.E.A.C.H scholarship is a debt-free plan in which UAEYC pays 80 percent of a student's tuition and books, plus travel and work-release stipends each week at a cost of roughly $4,000 per student per year.
Rixe's employer, Head Start in West Kearns, pays another 10 percent of her costs, meaning all Rixe has to worry about is 10 percent of tuition and books, plus studying for her English class, which is better than she expected.
She gets a cash bonus from both groups for each year of completed school, and will stay at Head Start for as many years as they support her through school.
This is the second year of a two-year funding grant for the scholarship, which means Ricord is anxiously seeking out new donors. Though the Utah program is small, she'd love to be able to offer the scholarship at any college in Utah, and even expand to students pursuing bachelors and master's degrees in this area.
In Utah there are more than 10,300 child care employees making around $9.40 an hour, says Lecia Parks Langston, a senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
That translates to just under $20,000 a year — or $4,600 below the national poverty guidelines for a family of 4.
Rixe knows she's luckier than most, making $15 an hour at Head Start, but it's tough to know the entire field is underpaid.
"I'm not complaining about the pay, I love working with children," she says, "It just seems like such an important position, to be entrusted with these precious littles and the pay is what it is, across the board."
What high quality care can do
It may seem obvious, but children do best — whether in day care or in a home — in safe, clean environments where they can grow cognitively, linguistically, socially, emotionally and morally.
They should feel supported and engaged by the adults around them — "not surprisingly, the basic elements of high-quality child care closely resemble the qualities of good parenting," noted a landmark report from 2000 entitled, "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development."
This 612-page report emphasized that early environments matter, parents are the most influential adults in a child's life and that high-quality care has life-long effects.
And because so many children have "out-of-home relationships" in paid-care settings, it's crucial to create quality and stability in those environments.
In high quality paid care, teachers are trained, licensed and receive ongoing training. They respond to children kindly, talk and read to them, respect each child's individuality and the values of the child's family. They offer space for children to explore, provide age-appropriate toys and activities and communicate clearly with parents.
The problem is, paid care in the United States is "highly fragmented and characterized by marked variation in quality," the report found.
Low-quality care is especially harmful for boys, who are more affected by low-quality paid care than are girls, yet high quality care can have long-lasting benefits for kids, especially those from at-risk situations.
These findings should resonate in Utah, where demographics are shifting, experts say.
In Utah, nearly one quarter of children are minority children, who are more likely to grow up in single-parent homes or in poverty, says Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director with Voices for Utah Children.
Those are the kids who would benefit the most from high quality child care, but often bear the "burden of poor quality and limited choice," and "whose financial resources are too high to qualify for subsidies yet too low to afford quality care," according to the "From Neurons to Neighborhoods" report.
"This is the worst time to be underinvesting in children in our education system," Weinstein said. "We need to be able to fully integrate these new immigrants, refugees, minority populations so that we’ll be able to be competitive, not just today, but 20, 50 years from now."
Hurdles to overcome
Yet convincing folks to invest in child care is still not an easy task, experts say.
"In some states, parents believe you could create a high-quality care situation in an institution or a day care facility for small children," said Erin Holmes, "but I'm not sure how many Utahns believe that."
Holmes, an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University and mother of three, knows from personal experience and from talking with other female professors that finding high-quality child care, particularly infant care, is a challenge.
She and her colleagues muse that perhaps it's so scarce because families here either don't feel it's needed or don't trust it, and thus aren't willing to invest in creating more high-quality options.
"I think Utah is making progress," said Ann Burghout Austin, director of the Center for Women and Gender at Utah State University and a professor of child development, "but it's very, very slow. The reason why it's slow is there are some very, very conservative (people) that just hang on to the issue that women need to be at home."
The debate over child care isn't about whether women should stay at home with kids, it's about the fact that a majority of women are working outside the home and need help with care. Yet the idea of women raising kids at home by themselves is a relatively new idea, historians say.
In colonial America, children were raised by both parents, as well as other adults of the community through apprenticeships, care from servants or discipline from the town fathers, making the "socialization of children ... a widely shared task," writes Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, a professor of women's studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in her book "Modern Motherhood: An American History."
However, by the early 19th century and following the Second Great Awakening, women became seen as the morally superior sex, and thus more adept at raising children, Vandenberg-Daves wrote.
As work shifted from farms to factories and men went into the cities while women stayed home, motherhood developed an identity and the home became a "private sanctuary" where mothers were to selflessly raise children, she says.
However, among single mothers and women too poor to stay home, those without kin networks turned to paid care while they worked.
"We've long considered child care to be ... a place where, 'Oh, those poor mothers who have to work, their children are stuck there,'" Vandenberg-Daves told the Deseret News. "That's the origin of American child care. It had a stigma from the beginning ... and it's never fully outgrown that."
Taylor White said she feels like a "second-class citizen" because of her decision to work and rely on child care for her twin 3-year-old girls.
"The gold standard is to stay home and raise the kids," says White, 29, a self-proclaimed workaholic and earned media manager for Progexion, a credit repair company in Salt Lake City. "And not just have someone stay home — it's the mom."
And until a few months ago, White did, working from home and alternating with her husband and his flexible nursing schedule to be home with their daughters. White knows they were lucky to pull it off for so long, but a recent job change necessitated a care change for the girls.
During the summer and holiday breaks, Erica Brown's two daughters, 9 and 6, attend a child-care facility at her husband's work in North Salt Lake, but she intentionally uses the word "school" instead of "day care" so she is "less judged."
"People say things like, 'I would NEVER put my kids in day care,'" says Brown, 38, who works as vice president of marketing at Thanksgiving Point Institute. "It's not like it's a dungeon. They have finger paints, cool songs, they have a playground — it's great."
And word choice matters. Experts encourage terms like "child care" or "early childhood education" instead of "day care," which can sound more like babysitting and fails to fully represent what high-quality care can offer.
"One thing that I think could be really beautiful is if we focused less attention on the parent’s decisions about employment and more attention on what we think children need to develop well," says BYU's Holmes. "Because if we can focus our attention instead on what children need to develop well, I think we might come to some different conclusions about what we’re willing to invest in children."