An Iowa Daycare’s Closure Highlights U.S. Childcare Crisis

TThe ipton Adaptive Daycare still has colorful plastic chairs and butterfly-adorned cubbies. There are also star mobiles hanging above the cribs. The owner of Tipton, Iowa’s childcare center, was ready to shut down her business after seven years. “I gave up,” says Deborah VanderGaast, the director and founder.

At the heart of VanderGaast’s struggle is a problem of basic economics. Tipton Adaptive had barely made ends meet before the pandemic. Before she closed, she was charging $175 per week for full-time infant and toddler care—a rate that was barely affordable for many families she serves. It was not enough to compensate her workers, whose starting wages ranged from $9 to $11 an hour.

VanderGaast spoke out in an October 2019 interview to TIME about high turnover among staff and the need for employees to take on second jobs. “It’s a broken system. And the more broken it got, the more it couldn’t be ignored,” says VanderGaast. The awareness of that broken system is a major part of why she is now running for an Iowa state senate seat as a Democrat—and why she has made improving childcare access one of her top issues.

Deborah VanderGaast greets Wilkinson, Tipton Adaptive Care Daycare Director, as they prepare to close the daycare permanently on August 17, 2022.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Because of poor economic conditions in childcare, daycare has been a lost cause. While childcare is expensive enough for most parents, the wages for childcare workers are still very low.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

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

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Although she used to have fifteen employees who cared for 76 kids, her current number is five. This includes 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 lasting replacements. “It’s very stressful, very challenging work for horrible pay,” VanderGaast says. “You can get paid better to go stand at a cash register, and not have the level of responsibility and expectations and stress.”

The closure illustrates the ways in which the country’s intractable childcare crisis has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by spiraling costs and worker shortages. It is one of the most underpaid jobs in America, with the national average wage for childcare workers at just above $13 an hour. Federal labor data shows that childcare employment has fallen 8.4% from pre-pandemic levels. It is down almost 90,000 jobs since February 2020. Only 28% of Iowa’s childcare companies closed between 2016 and 2021.

But unlike some other industries, a declining supply of childcare doesn’t correspond to lagging demand—because of the precarious economics by which the childcare industry operates. In fact, America’s families are desperate for daycare, and the economic and social consequences of closures can be huge. State data shows that Iowa’s children below 12 have 350,000 more than the number of childcare slots. A 2021 study by the Bipartisan policy Center found that 3.4 Million children live in 35 states without access to formal childcare.

VanderGaast agrees with many national experts when he says that government subsidies should be increased to ensure childcare is affordable. According to U.S. Treasury Department analyses, the current system makes it unaffordable for over 60% of working families. This prevents childcare providers raising their rates. However, childcare directors are prohibited from further cutting costs due to significant fixed expenses and safety regulations. VanderGaast claims that she lost money with every child under 3 years old because of the additional safety regulations.

“Fundamentally, there is not enough public money in the system,” says Elliot Haspel, a family policy expert and author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It. “We cannot innovate our way out of this. We cannot entrepreneur our way out of this.”

In an attempt to retain their employees, Washington, D.C., state and city leaders gave one-time bonuses to childcare workers this year. On Aug. 16, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. However, there were no draft provisions which would have allowed for better childcare access and increased the child tax credit.

Tipton Adaptive’s closure on Aug. 19 leaves just one state-licensed daycare center for children younger than preschool in Tipton, a city of about 3,200 people in eastern Iowa. “We needed both of our childcares in this town,” says Shanon Hillyer, director of Cedar County Coordinated Child Care, Inc., the remaining daycare. Hillyer’s nonprofit currently enrolls 29 children aged six weeks to 4 years old, and has a waitlist of 24 families for that age group. She would like to take on more kids, and she knows there’s overwhelming demand in the community—but she has also struggled to hire more workers who are both qualified and willing to take on the job. Her starting salary is $11.

Some lucky families from Tipton Adaptive have found a space in one of Hillyer’s programs. Some others have sent their children to daycares in the home, which may not be licensed by the state. VanderGaast was relied upon by many families, including nurses, farmers, and construction workers. According to her, many people are still trying find a solution. One family has moved to another county in order to be near family who are able to care for their children. Iowa’s childcare crisis costs $935 million per year in lost revenue, absenteeism, and turnover. Moreover, women are less likely to quit the workforce than their male counterparts and lose out on potential earnings due to a lack of childcare.

Corrine VanderGaast is Deborah’s daughter. She works as an assistant teacher in the daycare. Dircks Grau at age 9.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Hunter Rutkowski (10 years old) and Alice Nefzger (8 years old), were among those who visited the daycare in the summer.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Deborah VanderGaast and Brody Wendt play checkers, aged 8.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

VanderGaast wants to present the issue in Iowa to the legislature. In the race for District 41 State Senate Seat, VanderGaast faces stiff competition from Kerry Gruenhagen who is based in Iowa. She wants to increase childcare subsidies and fight for higher wages for childcare workers. “I’ve been fighting so hard to fight the childcare crisis, screaming, I feel like, at the top of my lungs, and nobody can hear me,” she says.

The 8.4% drop in childcare employment compared with pre-pandemic levels is almost 90,000.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Corrine VanderGaast, one of 15 workers who once cared for 76 children at the center is still employed.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

Tipton Adaptive has closed its only state-licensed daycare facility for children under the age of preschool. From 2016 through 2021, Iowa saw 28% closing childcare business.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

In between campaigning, she’s planning to get a job with the local school district as a substitute nurse and bus driver.

VanderGaast still hopes to sell Tipton Adaptive Childcare or lease the building to another childcare provider. That’s why she has held off on taking down decorations and moving out furniture. “Are all these classrooms going to be ripped up for a warehouse or a sales floor?” she says. “Is my beautiful playground going to be bulldozed for a parking lot?”

Hunter Rutkowski (age 10) and Alice Nefzger (age 8) play outside. Although they are expected to return to school shortly, parents with children younger than 8 years old still have to come up with a plan for childcare.

Kathryn Gamble for TIME

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