AP NEWS

Child care crisis hits close to home

March 19, 2019

Members of First Congregational United Church of Christ gathered Sunday to learn about a situation not only affecting Watertown families and workers, but also families and workers across the state and even nationally.

Chris Braunschweig, director of Gingerbread Inc. Preschool and Child Care Center which offers preschool and 4K programs, talked to attendees about the problems affecting child care today.

With two child care centers closing in Watertown just in the past year -- Kid’s Palace and Great Expectations -- and Gingerbread being the last independent center standing, Braunschweig called the situation a crisis.

Braunschweig credited multiple reasons for the crisis, noting declining enrollment, low wages for child care workers and rising tuition rates for parents. Locally, with businesses like Shopko shutting down and parents going out of town to work, Braunschweig also questioned if that might lead to families leaving the area, leaving fewer families to take advantage of child care services in town.

Braunschweig said the Watertown birth rate and Watertown Unified School District enrollment numbers have gone down. A program brochure stated the latter is expected to decline over the next three years.

In addition, an Associated Press story earlier this month noted the average child care worker in the state earns $10.33 an hour -- only approximately $3 above Wisconsin’s minimum wage.

It’s a number that Braunschweig was sad to note, because she said her workers are “worth the world.” “It takes a very special person to do this job ... It’s way more than baby-sitting,” she said.

However, as much as a child care center might like to raise that wage, higher wages would mean a hike in tuition costs, putting a hardship on the families the center serves, noted Braunschweig.

“If you paid all my employees $15 (an hour) ... do you know how much you would have to pay for child care? Nobody would be able to work outside the home,” noted Braunschweig.

She said parents are even quitting their jobs to stay at home with their children because the child care cost is too much.

One parent, Laura Brown, said she had to quit a job she loved and was at for almost six years because she couldn’t afford to have both of her children in child care. She now stays at home with her 4-month-old son while her daughter, Madyson, goes to Gingerbread.

Braunschweig said she tries to work with families to make child care possible for them, such as parents Dr. Robert and Angie Gbala, who had only recently moved and were struggling with jobs when they approached Braunschweig.

“In my philosophy, what good is it doing for our community to have people who want to work not being able to work because they can’t afford child care?” said Braunschweig. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

During the presentation Braunschweig and parents testified to the positive effects the child care experience has had on families she has served.

“To this day this is the only child care that my wife trusts,” said Robert Gbala. “My son comes home happy.”

Colin and Emma Bond, who recently became foster parents, said their young boy -- who came in to Gingerbread with struggles of his own -- “has grown (by) leaps and bounds,” improving in his speech, using words to express his emotions and just being happier. They credited Gingerbread for helping in that growth.

“What we have to do as a society is we have to figure out a way to get child care centers the money they need so they can train their staff ... so there’s reasons for (the workers) to continue to work in child care,” proposed Braunschweig.

A lack of trained workers and centers closing are not the only problems resulting from the child care issue, stated a brochure prepared for the event. According to data provided by Tarasa Lown, program officer with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, a lack of quality child care can result in a lack of preparedness in children to get the education they need.

“It’s really important that children know how to read by third grade ... children from kindergarten to third grade, they are learning to read. From third grade on, they have to know how to read to learn,” stated Lown.

Lown presented research that showed how interacting with children through talk, read and play -- activities that child care centers like Gingerbread provide and campaigns like TalkReadPlay champion -- prepare children for success when they’re older, both in school and in entering the workforce.

Lown said 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of life. However, research seems to indicate children aren’t getting the good education they need.

Regionally, she said, only 24 percent of economically disadvantaged third-graders read at a third-grade reading level. On a national scale, 70 percent of people ages 17-24 do not meet the basic requirements to enter the military, whether that be an academic, physical or criminal reason.

“What’s happening is baby boomers are aging out of the workforce at a greater rate, at a higher number than we have people coming into the workforce,” said Lown, “so what that means is we really need our children to be prepared because we have fewer people to take those jobs. But we need them to be qualified.”

However, the cost to give young children in the area that early learning experience can be great, according to the 2018 Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed report -- ALICE for short -- issued by the United Way. In both Dodge and Jefferson counties, for the expenses of a family of two adults, an infant and a preschooler, child care expenses can take up approximately 25 percent of the expenses.

To help, Braunschweig is proposing an early education scholarship program for families who want to send their children to Gingerbread. The scholarship would be funded by the community and would, according to the program brochure, reduce child care fees as well as aid staff in continuing their training.

Braunschweig is meeting with the Watertown Rotary Club today to discuss her scholarship idea with members of the business community.

Braunschweig said a child care center like Gingerbread can be a place that children can count on -- whether it be to learn something, feel safe or fulfill a physical need, like receiving some extra food during the day.

“All children are capable of learning ... (and) they need a purpose,” she said.