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Need for affordable, accessible child care continues in South Dakota

State struggles to meet needs of families, providers report says

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Taysha Wantoch blows bubbles for Silus Garcia, from left, Tayvalin Wantoch, Raylee McKinney, Eden Endfield and Bell Swank while playing on Thursday afternoon, July 30, 2020 at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell, S.D. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade
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MITCHELL — Parents struggle to afford paying for child care. Child care centers struggle to provide the service and maintain their employee base.

That duality is at the heart of the issue of the child care problem currently plaguing South Dakota, according to a new report from Kids Count South Dakota , an organization that provides information about policies and programs for children and families.

It’s a problem that affects both parents and providers, but it extends well beyond that into the economic health of everyone in South Dakota, said Xanna Burg, coordinator for Kids Count South Dakota.

“When we were writing this report we were working from the angle of economics and child care,” Burg told the Mitchell Republic. “It’s gotten a lot of attention in the last year with the pandemic, and childcare has been a challenge for parents and providers longer than that, but we wanted to highlight how essential it is for a strong economy to to have a workforce of parents with children who can afford reliable child care.”

The report, titled A Modern Economy Depends On Child Care - South Dakota Can Make It Affordable And Accessible, released in December, indicates that there are nearly 73,000 children younger than age 6 in South Dakota, with 74% of those having all parents in the workforce. That’s higher than the national average of about 68%, Burg said. For many, utilizing a professional child care provider is the only option allowing families to maximize their household earning potential.

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In South Dakota, parents have two options: regulated and unregulated child care providers. Providers must be regulated by the state if they care for 13 children or more. Providers located in family homes with 12 or fewer children attending can voluntarily register with the state but are not required to. Regulation helps ensure health and safety standards, Burg said, and while unregulated providers can still offer quality child care, she would like to see more facilities become regulated for several reasons.

Including access to federal support dollars.

“Those regulations are really there to make sure it is a safe environment. There are unregulated providers that follow best practices as well, but there are also those that don’t,” Burg said. “I think something to think about now will be the $100 million that was part of (Gov. Kristi Noem’s) budget address.”

Child Care in South Dakota Report by Erik Kaufman on Scribd

Noem announced earlier this month that grants to assist child care providers licensed and registered with the South Dakota Department of Social Services will soon become available. South Dakota received $100 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help support child care providers and families impacted by COVID-19. The department is expected to use the funds to support new and existing child care providers through a variety of grants, including stabilization funding, program enhancements and startup funding for new daycares.

“Child care services are a vital component of South Dakota’s strong economy,” said Laurie Gill, state department of social services cabinet secretary in a statement in early December. “South Dakota is investing in our communities and families by helping stabilize child care providers. I am grateful to Governor Noem for including this priority issue in her recommended budget and for spreading awareness by highlighting this program in her budget address.”

News of the funding is wonderful, Burg said. Providers often struggle maintaining their staff base, with most employees in the field making at or near the poverty line for their household income. Employee wages are often the first thing to be cut when the budget line is tight, Burg said.

But the funding is only available to regulated providers in South Dakota, which is another reason to encourage all providers to become regulated even if they are not required to be, Burg said.

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“You have to be a regulated provider to get that funding, and if we’re missing a huge portion of those who are unregulated, we’re not reaching those providers,” Burg said.

There are also programs through the South Dakota Department of Social Services that provide assistance to low-income families who need help with child care costs while parents work or attend school. This assistance is only available to those who get their child care services from a regulated provider, again showing the need for more regulated providers. In some areas of South Dakota, regulated child care isn’t really an option. Douglas, Faulk, Hyde, Jones, Mellette, Perkins and Sully counties all lack any regulated child care providers, according to the report.

Those assistance funds can be crucial for families, who often spend up to $10,000 a year on child care costs, more than the cost of in-state tuition at the University of South Dakota, according to the report.

And every child with working parents in the state can be affected, Burg said, with minority families and families with children with disabilities being particularly hard-hit by the dilemma.

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Keegan Harrson, left, goes down the slide as Charmayne Sherrad, right, waits for him while Raylee Mckinney sits in her lap while Taysha Wantoch, back, plays with Tayvalin Wantoch in her lap as Eden Endfield sits by their side while playing at Little Learners Preschool and Daycare in Mitchell in this Republic file photo. Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic
Matt Gade

“All families are struggling to afford child care. Typically a family will pay 9% of its income toward child care, but on average not everybody has the same income,” Burg said. “Families of color on average have lower median incomes so it makes up a bigger percentage of their income. We wanted to highlight that disparity and look for solutions.”

Affordable, accessible child care has been an issue in the state for decades, and it is not a problem unique to South Dakota. Burg said finding a resolution to the issue will benefit people across the board. Parents receive quality child care at an affordable price, child care entities can provide a service without profit margins so thin that employee wages suffer and the economic health of the state is improved by allowing more parents to get out into the workforce or to pursue higher education.

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Kids Count South Dakota will continue to gather data and analysis to help policymakers make the informed choices they need to resolve the crisis, with an eye toward the 2022 South Dakota legislative session and beyond.

It will likely take time, but the rewards will be worth it, she said.

“How can the state invest in child care? How can communities? How can businesses be a part of the solution? It’s pretty apparent that the current model isn’t working, current funding isn’t working for the businesses or the parents,” Burg said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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