‘It has to be everyone’: Wisconsin counties seek solutions for child care crisis

When families can’t access high-quality child care, the entire community is affected.

It’s essential to not only child and family well-being but also the health of local economies. However, many Wisconsin counties do not have enough licensed child care slots available to meet the needs of families with young children. These providers often struggle to remain financially profitable while families are burdened by cost of care, and child care workers are often underpaid and undervalued.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Brian Fukuda, the former community development manager for La Crosse County. “Unfortunately, the economic model of childcare is broken because there isn’t the potential for enough revenue in order to sustain the expenses.”

Fukuda said La Crosse County has seen a decline in regulated child care spots even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated challenges.

Suzanne Brault, a consultant supporting Outagamie County, said “systemic challenges in the child care space leading to failure for many families have been long-standing” and that “these challenges were illuminated and heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Brault worked with the county on a community investment analysis that wrapped up in June 2023.

While the problem may now have more attention, Brault wants to spotlight solutions and who should be working toward them.

“This isn’t a family issue, this isn’t a child care system issue to fix, it is not a business issue to fix. It is all of us,” Brault said. “What’s important in this particular moment, is that everyone can play a role and contribute to multiple solutions.”

La Crosse and Outagamie counties partnered with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s UniverCity Alliance and the La Follette School of Public Affairs to research innovative solutions in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Since then, La Crosse County awarded $500,000 from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation in child care grants to 37 providers. The funds will be used to help child care providers increase capacity, improve the quality of care, and access state programming. Additionally, La Crosse County plans to remodel a county-owned nursing home to include an intergenerational day center with up to 60 child care slots.

In September 2023, Outagamie County awarded $2.75 million in grants investing in child care and early education development to two local non-profits to establish a Family Resource Center and a Shared Services Program. The awards are funded by the county’s ARPA dollars and made available through a competitive-process.

“The La Follette report is being used to inform decision makers and local officials,” Brault said.

Outagamie County partnered with the Greater Fox Valley Child Care Alliance and UCA to connect with a group of four La Follette students in the Spring 2022 semester. Their report noted that more than one-third of zip codes in the county are considered “child care deserts” or an area where there are three or more children under age five for every licensed child care slot in a zip code.

The demand for child care far exceeds the supply, according to the report. Also, regulated child care is often not affordable for families, although providers find what they charge doesn’t cover the cost.

Lynn Coriano, executive director of the Basic Needs Giving Partnership and organizer of the Greater Fox Valley Child Care Alliance, said the answer isn’t as simple as adding child care capacity in the county.

“It’s easy to think the solution is just to add more childcare centers. We can do that, but the workforce isn’t there. The workforce isn’t there because the salaries aren’t there – because we as a society haven’t traditionally valued care positions – including early care and education.” Coriano said.

The average wage for child care workers in Outagamie County is $13.80 per hour, which is far less than the county’s average wage of $23.60 per hour, according to the report.

“We have to be building something new and different,” Coriano said.

Ultimately, the students recommended the following for Outagamie County:

  • Explore partnering with an existing shared services network to expand into the county and region.
  • Provide grant funding for home-based providers to cover expenses related to state health and safety regulations.
  • Incentivize public-private partnerships between child care providers and local businesses.
  • Conduct additional research on the needs of providers, especially BIPOC providers.

Focusing efforts

Fukuda said there are likely several solutions to address such a “huge issue” like child care.

“As a community, we need to be looking at it from so many different angles and implementing solutions in a couple different ways,” Fukuda said. “What our partnership with the UniverCity Year program has provided us is really a great focus for where we should be spending our time, our energy, our efforts and making our investments to really impact the community in the biggest way possible.”

Four students in La Follette’s course on benefit-cost analysis in the Fall 2021 semester studied three alternatives to current policy to increase the availability and affordability of child care in La Crosse County. These include the county:

  • Providing grants to incentivize the creation of an employer-assisted child care cooperative
  • Developing and operating a child care program for use by county employees
  • Providing grants to child care programs to subsidize staff wages and benefits

The group analyzed state, local, and national data to determine the social costs and benefits. Ultimately, the team’s statistical analysis found that the costs of these alternatives were greater than the benefits. However, the students determined that targeting families with the highest need would create the largest payoffs for funders and communities.

“There’s a negative net benefit, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” Fukuda said. “It just means that we need to be more strategic in how we make those investments.”

Regional perspective

Outagamie and La Crosse counties are not alone in their challenges.

“What we’re experiencing here with our child care situation is certainly not unique,” Fukuda said. “Pretty much every other community across the state and probably across the country is dealing with a lot of these same things.”

UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said he has seen a “steady increase” in the number of communities seeking help on addressing child care access and affordability.

“I believe communities are coming to UniverCity Year to seek out-of-the-box solutions to a problem that seems intractable to them,” Luter said. “It is an ideal public policy question because it grows out of market failures, and multi-sector solutions are needed.”

While the La Follette reports focus on two individual counties, there’s benefit from a regional perspective.

Coriano, who convenes the Greater Fox Valley Child Care Alliance, said she wants to take the lessons learned from these reports and apply them in other areas.

“We (the alliance) are trying to understand what are the unique traits and opportunities in each of these communities?” Coriano said. “What are we learning from UniverCity that could be applied or tweaked or adjusted regionally in other communities?”

This story was published in the January 2024 edition of the Wisconsin Counties magazine. Read the full edition here.

UniverCity Alliance welcomes the opportunity to convene interested stakeholders on this issue. Email luter@wisc.edu for more information.

–Abigail Becker