Child care funds are running out. Will Utah Legislature react?

Child care provider Holly Kingston holds her daughter Haisley as she talks with Ilse Wilson, another child care provider, during the “Child Care Day on the Hill” event on Jan. 27, 2023, at the Capitol.

Child care provider Holly Kingston, of West Jordan, holds her daughter Haisley as she talks with Ilse Wilson, another child care provider, during the “Child Care Day on the Hill” event on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Capitol. According to the group’s press release, “their goal is to make sure their legislators know that Utah’s child care system is broken and in dire need of substantial state investment.“

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Children dance, sing and play in the Capitol rotunda, filling the air with the song of young laughter. It’s 7:30 a.m., meaning it’s too early for most child care options, so for parents attending, this is the only option as they try to make a case to lawmakers about the challenges their families face paying for their children’s care.

Songs like “Here Comes the Dinosaur,” “The Hokey Pokey,” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” are sung between speeches to keep the kids entertained, enriched and involved.

“This (event),” Anna Thomas, Voices for Utah Children senior policy analyst said, “is a great reminder of why it is impossible to work while doing child care.”

Flyers with bills listed, encouraging support from the public, are passed around among the crowd of around 100 adults with more trickling in as the day went on.

HB167 would allow some state agencies to create an on-site child care facility, along with HB170, which would provide nonrefundable tax credit for each child to help with the cost of child care for families that make between $60,000 and $94,000. A bill that would create a sales tax exemption for materials used to expand a child care program, HB282, is also on the list.

The latest hurdle to child care, Thomas explained, comes as funding from COVID-19 relief funding is running out. Without it many child care facilities will not be able to continue providing quality services to those in need.

“At the center of this is children,” Thomas said, emphasizing she wants to keep the focus on kids who are impacted. Parents cannot realistically work a full-time job and tend to their child’s needs at the same time, she explained, even if they are working remotely. Child care is necessary for all parents.

Holly Kingston, a mother and child care provider, said during the event, “I couldn’t afford child care.” So, she started providing child care herself.

She described a day in her life. Up in the morning by 6:30, Kingston gets her kids ready for the day, drops her older children off at school, picks up the kids who are too young to go to school, and heads back home to care for the children.

Throughout the day they do a variety of activities, all fast-paced and engaging to keep kids involved and actively learning. They play, learn, nap, eat and actively engage with other children.

She cares for those in her in-home facility until after dinnertime when parents are off work and able to pick up their children.

“Money is the biggest challenge for everybody (in child care),” Kingston said. For parents, finding quality providers for an affordable price proves to be a feat. For those who provide child care services, funds often fall short of what is needed to provide resources that are up to the standard.

Speaker Layla Lengyel, a parent, explained that often families require two incomes just to make ends meet, but can’t afford the child care required to maintain a steady job.

She said, “I was one of the lucky ones,” being able to afford child care and the cost of living with an infant.

Her husband, she said, worked a full-time job on top of her full-time income. The cost of living, she said, even with two incomes earning above the average wage, was burdensome.

“Given that day care was my daughter’s only form of socialization during the months of isolation,” she said, taking her out of the program was not an option.

Lengyel took partially paid leave for her pregnancy and couldn’t get the mental health help she required, sacrificing her own experience for her child’s.

Times were tough for Legyel and other parents even with the Stabilization Grant from the Office of Childcare, granted to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grant allowed providers to reduce child care prices so parents could continue working, said Becca Gerber, a Park City council member.

“Park City alone is facing (a loss of) $1.2 million in stabilization grants and our (child care) providers are facing tough decisions,” Gerber said.

Should providers raise tuition and be affordable only for high-wage earning individuals, becoming “unaffordable to families that need it most?” Gerber asked. Should providers cut capacity, leaving some families without child care options? Should they shut down entirely? These, she explained, are the options.

“This is not just babysitting,” Kingston said. “This is sitting down, interacting with kids, and teaching them.”