Top Utah community leaders, businesses and philanthropy organizations have signed an open letter asking the Utah Legislature to address the state’s child care crisis. The letter is posted on the websites of local nonprofits Neighborhood House and Voices for Utah Children.

Neighborhood House provides child care to economically challenged families. Voices for Utah Children is a nonpartisan program that advocates for policies that promote children’s well-being.

The letter notes that none of the legislative proposals have as yet had a public hearing.

Among the signatories are the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation, Spencer and Kristine Eccles, the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation, Angela and Zeke Dumke and child care provider and Children’s Tylenol National Child Care Teacher of the Year Kristy DeGraaf. More than 35 foundations, individuals, nonprofit organizations and businesses signed the letter, including the Salt Lake Chamber.

The “Call to Action for Elected Officials” says investing in a high-quality child care system and providing in-state infrastructure is “one of the best investments we can make for our children and our state.”

That would include an early care and education system that boosts families’ earning potential and helps children succeed in school, the letter said.

“Approximately 77% of Utahns live in a child care desert, demonstrating that the majority of our state lacks sufficient licensed child care to meet families’ needs,” per the letter. “This predicament stems from both limited availability of services and the strikingly high cost of quality care. When available, the high cost of care inhibits lower income families from participating in the workforce.”

The letter also notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation that families should pay no more than 7% of household income for child care. Meanwhile, it adds, Utah families in more than half of the state’s counties pay 15% to 20% of income for infant and toddler care at licensed facilities.

“Without government investment, families are left with low-quality options that endanger children and disincentivize providers. We are calling on the Utah Legislature to invest more dollars into the child care industry,” they write. “With cross-sector collaboration between business, the philanthropic community and government entities, we can address this crisis and become a model for the nation.”

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The letter says that Utah’s economy loses $1.36 billion each year because of lack of access to child care. And it makes a case that early childhood education prevents problems and boosts a child’s lifetime earnings, while reducing involvement with the criminal justice system.

When pandemic-era help died

Close to 60% of Utah families have both parents in the workforce, according to Moe Hickey, executive director of Voices for Utah Children. So the need for quality child care for young children is great, he said.

Kinship care — grandparents or other relatives providing care while mom and dad work — which used to be a robust part of child care — is less available, in part because many of them have to work to afford the high cost of living, too. Hickey noted that “as people have dispersed and moved around the state, that safety net has sort of started to disappear.”

During the pandemic, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, including $24 billion in grants for child care, which absorbed what could have been a devastating blow when people were sent home from work, school and other activities. As the Deseret News reported, the money paid workers, utility bills, mortgages and the cost of things like hand sanitizers and masks.

Hickey told Deseret News that the pandemic-era child care funding not only helped with costs, but bolstered families’ sense of having a safe place for their children while they worked.

But like other pandemic aid, it went away. At the end of September, when the money dropped off, the progressive Century Foundation predicted that nationally close to 70,000 child care programs would close, taking 3 million child care slots with them and shrinking national economic activity by about $10.6 million.

Even before the pandemic, child care was expensive — Hickey said in Utah good child care can cost more than college tuition — but the workers and providers themselves were underpaid. A 2022 LendingTree study found child care costs average just under $1,000 a month nationwide but the median hourly wage of workers is about $12.

Last September, a letter signed by nearly 1,000 national organizations asked Congress to put at least $16 billion a year into an emergency child care fund “to avert a devastating decrease in the supply of care that would disrupt both families and our economy.” Failure to do so, they said, would force parents to leave the work force and the child care industry would be devastated.

This past November, President Joe Biden requested $16 billion to stabilize the child care industry. The supplemental request has not been granted by Congress, though there’s broad bipartisan support for child care help.

Said Hickey, “If people care about the economy, child care is an issue. If they care about the humanitarian side, it’s an issue.”

What taking action could mean

Hickey said child care and family advocates have been asking for “an actual plan for child care in the state.” While there’s an Office of Child Care, he said, it focuses quite heavily on regulations, while funders put in just enough to qualify for federal dollars.

“We would love to see a comprehensive plan for the 0 to 5 population,” Hickey said, acknowledging money is central to that. “That’s really what it comes down to: Child care centers expanded with the federal funding in COVID and they were able to pay their staff a living wage. And now we’ve been seeing them closing.”

He said his own daughter at one point made more working in doggy day care than a preschool teacher earned.

“Money will solve a lot of problems, but we’ve always advocated for good policy as well,” Hickey said. “And part of good policy is to have a structure in place so the money is spent effectively and sustainably.”