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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Will Indiana’s near-total abortion ban add stress to the state’s child care system?

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Kelly Dawn Jones took a few days off work — something she said she never does — to testify before state lawmakers in favor of abortion rights.

“I went to the Indiana Statehouse to attempt to speak my truth about the situation and that we are not prepared for what they are trying to do,” Jones said. “There we are. Nobody is prepared.”

Jones runs an in-home child care business in southeast Indianapolis; she also substitutes for other child care businesses. She said there are not enough people trained to provide quality care.

A report from Early Learning Indiana shows only 2.6% of census tracts in the state have “adequate” access to child care. High-quality child care fulfills requirements set by the state Family and Social Services Administration. They are a level three or level four on Indiana’s Paths to QUALITY Rating and Improvement System.

The latest data available, in 2019, showed Indiana has the capacity to serve only around 180,000 children at that level of care. It also showed the state had 478,754 children under age 6 who likely need care.

Maureen Weber is the CEO of Early Learning Indiana and said the staffing shortage is part of that access shortage.

“Given the tightness of the labor market, we are just really struggling to compete for talent, given the some of the historical challenges that we have had around low wages and overall compensation levels,” said Weber.

While no one can say for sure if more children will be born because of the near-total abortion ban, it is one possible outcome. Jones said she and others want the state to ensure more pre-K access for more children.

“If you want all the babies to be born, you should create an environment where people want to have babies, but right now child care is $15,000 a year per child and we don’t have enough of it,” Jones said. She said quality child care costs more than many families can afford.

In the special legislative session, lawmakers did pass a bill that suspends the diaper tax, increases the adoption tax credit and allocates about $74 million in supports for women and children. A sizable chunk of that money — around $10 million — will go to the Child Care Development Fund, a federal and state partnership program that provides assistance to eligible low-income families in need of care. None of that money is earmarked for pre-K.

The Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children estimates that nearly two-thirds of children across the state need care. 

Child care is not a ‘good job’

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, defines a “good job” as one that provides stable employment, middle-class wages and benefits. A regionally adjusted family-sustaining wage in Indiana averages a good job pays around $40,000 a year.

Most child care workers make far less.

The average wage for child care providers in the U.S. in May 2021 was $11.43 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS defines a child care worker as someone who attends to children at schools, businesses, private households and child care institutions.

Indiana’s child care workers’ wages track with the national child care income average, at an hourly wage of $11.64 and an average annual income of $24,210.

Only 15% of child care workers receive health insurance, compared to about half of all workers in other occupations. About 1 in 10 child care workers are covered by a pension plan, compared with 39% of workers in other occupations, according to a report from the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute.

These low wages deter talent from entering and staying in the child care workforce across the country.

Not only is that difficult for families who need care, but it’s hard on the providers themselves.

Jones said her annual income fluctuates, but in recent years it has been around $26,000. And when she gave birth to her son, she couldn’t go on maternity leave. There was no one to fill in for her. She gave birth on a Sunday and was back to work that Thursday.

“I sat here in my home child care trying to do my very best to administer the best I could,” Jones said. “But I don’t know what you want me to do. The baby is now on my breast. I’m sitting in a rocking chair. And I don’t know how you want me to tell the children to stop fighting with each other at that moment.” 

Impact on the economy

Ball State economics professor Michael Hicks said child care deserts hurt the economy because they have long-lasting impacts on educational attainment and intellectual development.

“When you are a state that faces very deep educational attainment challenges, like Indiana, the low-cost source of improvement is in early childhood education,” Hicks said.

He said places that are thriving economically are the same places that invest in human capital.

“They address early childhood IQ disparities, they better address K-12 performance, they increase the share that go to college, they increase the share that graduate from college,” Hicks said. “They make communities that are more attractive for people to live.”

Unlike many other industries, Hicks doesn’t foresee many child care providers moving out of state because of the near-total abortion ban.

Rather, he said the ban might be an incentive for legislators to invest more in early childhood education.

“The political criticism of banning abortion while doing nothing to care for the child after they’re born is, I think, likely to prompt many states to reconsider what they do in terms of spending in that area,” Hicks said.

He agrees with many in the industry that more public investment is needed to increase access to quality child care across the state.

“So unless Indiana really embarks upon a very aggressive spending plan for early childhood education, it seems unlikely that we’re going to see big improvements in the circumstances surrounding that industry,” he said. 

‘It is not babysitting’

The CDC says children reach 90% of adult brain volume by the age of 6, and early childhood instructors are trained to bolster that development. The impacts it has on a developing brain last a lifetime — like motor skills and emotional regulation.

Indiana University professor of early childhood education Lauren Ray said child care gaps can also contribute to poor health outcomes and contribute to cycles of poverty.

“Now that child is living with a stressed parent, and also maybe is losing the resources that the parent was bringing in from that job,” Ray said. “Living in poverty is not good for anybody. And it’s certainly not good for kids.”

She said professionals trained to give quality care build relationships with the children and provide a safe, educational environment.

“Young children really crave consistency,” Ray said. “That sense of safety, that sense of security, really contributes to how a child is socially and emotionally developing, right? When we feel unsafe or unclear for long periods of time, our bodies react to that and we develop unhealthy responses to that.”

Data shows quality child care is also directly linked to higher wages and higher educational attainment later in life.

“It is not babysitting; it is not just keeping or caring for children,” Weber said. “It really is developing the child as a whole, self skills, social emotional skills, language development, physical, all of those aspects play a part in the growing human.”

Contact WFYI economic equity reporter Sydney Dauphinais at sdauphinais@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: syddauphinais.

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