Iowa daycare closing underscores U.S. child care crisis

Tipton Adaptive Daycare is still full of colorful plastic chairs decorated with butterfly cubes and star mobiles hanging above the cots. But most classrooms were empty of children this week as the owner of a rural Tipton, Iowa, daycare center prepares to close her business permanently after more than seven years. “I gave up,” says Deborah VanderGast, director and founder.

At the heart of VanderGaast’s struggle is the problem of mainstream economics. Even before the pandemic, Tipton Adaptive was barely turning a profit. Before it closed, it charged $175 a week for full-time infant and toddler care — a price that was barely affordable for many of the families it serves. But it also barely had enough to pay its employees, who were starting at $9 to $11 an hour.

In an interview with TIME in October 2019, VanderGaast described high staff turnover and employees having to work second jobs. “It’s a broken system. And the more it went bad, the more it couldn’t be ignored,” says VanderGast. Awareness of this broken system is a major part of why she’s now running for the Iowa state senate as a Democrat — and why she’s made improving access to child care one of her top issues.

Deborah VanderGast, director of Adaptive Daycare Tipton, greets Wilkinson on Aug. 17, 2022, as she prepares to close the daycare permanently.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Kindergarten has fallen victim to the broken childcare economy. Care is too expensive for many parents to afford, while wages for childcare workers remain too low.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Deborah VanderGast, who opened the daycare in 2014, decided to close the business because she couldn’t find enough workers.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

While she once had 15 employees caring for 76 children, she has only had five employees since June, including her daughter. She understands why several of her employees joined the tens of millions of Americans who quit their jobs during the pandemic years — and why she was unable to find permanent replacements. “It’s a very stressful, very challenging job for terrible pay,” VanderGast says. “You can get paid better if you stand at the cash register and don’t have the level of responsibility, expectations and stress.”

The closings illustrate the ways in which the nation’s intractable child care crisis is unfolding has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by spiraling costs and labor shortages. Babysitting employment remains 8.4% below pre-pandemic levelswhich is down nearly 90,000 jobs compared to February 2020, according to federal labor data. In Iowa alone, 28 percent of child care businesses closed from 2016 to 2021. But unlike some other industries, declining child care supply has not matched lagging demand. In fact, America’s families desperately need day care, and the economic and social consequences of closing it could be enormous. In Iowa, for example, the state has approximately 350,000 more children under the age of 12 than there are childcare facilities. according to state data.

Tipton Adaptive’s closing on Aug. 19 leaves just one state-licensed preschool day care center in Tipton, a town of about 3,200 people in eastern Iowa. “We needed both of our child care facilities in this town,” said Shannon Hillier, director of Cedar County Coordinated Child Care, Inc., the remaining day care. Hillyer’s nonprofit currently enrolls 29 children ages six weeks to 4 years old and has a waiting list of 24 families for that age group. She would like to take in more children and knows there is a huge demand in the community, but she is also struggling to hire more workers who are both qualified and willing to take on the work. (Her starting salary is $11.)

Some lucky Tipton Adaptive families have found a place in one of Hillyer’s programs. Others have sent their children to home kindergartens, some of which are not licensed by the state. Families who relied on VanderGaast included nurses, construction workers and farmers. She says many are still trying to find a solution. At least one family moved out of the county to be closer to family members who could help watch their children. Iowa estimates that the child care shortage costs the state $935 million a year in lost tax revenue, absenteeism and employee turnover. And women are more likely than men to drop out of the workforce and miss out on earning potential because of a lack of childcare.

VanderGaast, like many national experts, argues that more government subsidies are needed to make child care affordable. The current system is too expensive for many parents, but the significant fixed costs and the required safety regulations prevent daycare directors from reducing costs further. In fact, VanderGaast says she’s actually lost money for every child under the age of 3 she cares for because of the extra requirements that protect the youngest children.

Corinne VanderGast, Deborah’s daughter and kindergarten teacher’s assistant, helps Dirk Grau, 9.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Hunter Rutkowski, 10, and Alice Neftzger, 8, are among the school-age children who attended the daycare over the summer.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Deborah VanderGast plays checkmate with Brody Wendt, age 8.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

“Basically, there are not enough public funds in the system,” says Elliott Haspel, a family policy expert and author of Crawling Backward: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. “We cannot offer an innovative way out of this. We can’t entrepreneurially get away from it.”

This year, Washington, D.C., city council members and Utah state leaders gave one-time bonuses to childcare workers in an effort to keep them on the job. But on Inflation Reduction Act was signed by President Joe Biden on Aug. 16 without draft provisions that would improve access to child care, expand the child tax credit and reduce child care costs for low-income families.

VanderGaast hopes to take the matter to the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines. After winning her primary in June, she faces an uphill battle against Republican Kerry Gruenhagen, a farmer, in the race for the 41st state Senate seat. If elected in November, she wants to expand child care subsidies, fight for better pay for child care workers, support an employer payroll tax to fund child care programs, and resolve discrepancies in safety rules between home care and day care. “I’ve been fighting so hard to fight the childcare crisis, I’m screaming, I feel like my throat is full and no one can hear me,” she says.

Child care employment remains 8.4% below pre-pandemic levels, down nearly 90,000 jobs from February 2020.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Corrine VanderGaast is one of the few employees still working at the center, where 15 employees once cared for 76 children.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

The closing of Tipton Adaptive leaves only one state-licensed preschool day care center in Tipton. In Iowa, 28% of child care businesses closed from 2016 to 2021.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

Between campaigns, she plans to find work in the local school district as a substitute nurse and bus driver.

As for Adaptive Daycare Tipton, VanderGaast hopes she can sell or lease the building to another child care provider. That is why she has refrained from taking down decorations and moving furniture. “Are all these classrooms going to be torn up for a warehouse or a retail floor?” she says. “Will my beautiful playground be bulldozed for parking?”

Hunter Rutkowski, 10, and Alice Neftzger, 8, play outside. Even though they will soon be going back to school, some parents with younger children are still trying to create a new parenting schedule.

Katherine Gamble for TIME

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