News 8 Now Investigates: La Crosse County loses hundreds of child care providers over 20 years

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)- If you’re a parent in need of child care, you know how difficult it is to find and to afford.

La Crosse County alone has lost more than 350 child care businesses in the last two decades.

This is not a new problem, but one the pandemic brought to the forefront.

Kendall Snyder cherishes every moment with her 17-month old son, but like so many others, she’s trying to balance being a mom with a full-time job.

“As a working mom, I thought ‘Well gosh, who’s going to take care of my kid during the day?’ My husband works as well.”

Kendall relocated to the area last summer for a neurosurgeon position at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse. “In April of 2021, we were told very likely nothing would be available until March 2022.”

She was nearly forced to put off her new job before she even started.

“I had an ‘oh no’ moment. I may not be able to start work because I might not have child care. The idea of not being able to move forward with employment because you don’t have child care is terrifying.”

What happened to Kendall isn’t new. In 1998, there were 450 child care businesses in La Crosse County. By 2015, that number dropped to 200. And in 2021, there were just 92.

“We’re in a child care crisis,” said Audra Wieser, Early Care and Education Director at the Parenting Place in La Crosse.

Experts say a big reason for the dramatic decrease is changes in regulatory and quality requirements for providers without the funding support.

“I don’t think anybody would argue that increasing the quality or safety of child care is a bad thing, but many of those changes came with increased costs to child care centers,” said Wieser. “The lack of financial support for those changes, really made it difficult for child care providers to remain viable.”

Also at the root of the problem, money.

“The economics of child care are broken. While demand increases, the cost of child care can’t increase proportionately with that demand,” said Wieser.

According to the Parenting Place, the average rate for child care in La Crosse Co. in 2021 was anywhere between $146 and $213 a week per child. depending on a number of different factors including the age of the child and what kind of setting the care was in.

Data collected and presented by Karl Green at the UW Extension also found, the most prevalent jobs in the county do not pay a wage sufficient for a working family.

In short, people are paying the majority of their salary to keep their kids in child care so they can work.

“We understand that child care costs are very high for parents and that is really difficult to afford and the impact on their budgets is great, but child care providers are not getting rich by any means, the cost of providing quality care is very expensive,” said Wieser.

Linda Meinking has owned Toddle Inn Day Care on St. Joseph Ridge for the past 33 years. She, like many of her fellow providers, is hanging on by a thread.

“I believe it’s the worst it’s ever been.”

She and her staff care for 70-80 kids a day from newborns to school age.

“We have a 4 page waiting list so I mean we take their name, but normally it’s going to be a couple of years before they can get in.”

County-wide, there were more than 1,100 children on waiting lists in September with 68 open child care positions.

Linda’s been trying to hire more staff, but hasn’t had anyone apply in months. The average wage is just $10-12 an hour with no benefits.

“Right now, if I lose one more staff person. I would have to close a classroom. We just don’t have anybody to work. People think of us as babysitters and the bottom line is I feel that unless that changes, we’re never going to be recognized as professionals and if that doesn’t change, we’re never going to be able to keep our businesses and our doors open.”

“Child care is sometimes talked about as being separate from education when really child care is a very important and crucial part of the educational process,” said Wieser.

Kendall was one of the fortunate ones. At the last minute, she was able to find a nanny to take care of their son in their home, something she knows isn’t an option for everyone.

“Our family overcame this issue, we did ultimately. We have a wonderful nanny who cares for our child. That said, there definitely was a time that we had to reconsider. I feel very fortunate through my career and a lot of hard work, I’ve gotten to the point that I can afford our full-time care at home. I feel very blessed that’s an option, I don’t know what I would’ve done if that were not an option.”

“The wider community started to notice over the last 5 years as businesses in our community found it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain employees. Of course, the pandemic has really shined a light on the economic necessity of child care,” said Wieser. “They’re [employees] telling us they’re passing up promotions or positions they’re being offered or they’re not able to relocate to the community.”

Most agree there isn’t a single solution to this crisis and the state is going to have to make some sort of investment.

“I never understand why if they’re 3 in the public school, we have money for them, if they’re 4 in the public school we have money for them, but if they’re 3 or 4 in a child care center, we don’t have any dollars. Why is that?” said Meinking.

“What we need to do now is really shift our mental model to say those children in early care and education settings, those 0-1-2 year olds, their brains are actually developing faster and quicker than any other time in our lives so why wouldn’t we be investing those dollars in those early years to help with that public good,” said Wisconsin’s Secretary of the Department of Children and Families Emilie Amundson.

“We can’t make child care sustainable in the state of Wisconsin without a long-term funding solution.”

She says coronavirus relief funds are helping the state get closer to that goal.

“We’ve got a program we’ve built to help us achieve long-term funding, we just need lawmakers to get on board with that plan.”

At the heart of this issue is arguably our greatest asset. And finding a solution only benefits everyone.

“If we don’t do something, we’re not going to make it,” said Meinking.

When long-term funding and sustainability is figured out, most agree one of the first things that needs to happen is to increase the pipeline of workers into the field with higher pay, benefits and greater recognition for the role they play in educating our children.

There’s also talk of working with businesses on ways they can help support the costs of child care with their employees.

The Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation will be holding a series of classes this summer for people interested in the childcare business with some basic tools to get started and ways to stay in business.

The classes are free and start June 8th. You can learn more here.