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Survey: Families still have trouble finding quality day care

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A new survey finds families using child care in Minnesota face the same problems as six years ago: they're having trouble finding quality day care they can afford. 

The problem is most apparent among low-income families who lose child care subsidies if they lose their job.

City Tots in Woodbury offers the kind of daycare many families yearn for. It's licensed for infant child care in a family setting, and it offers early morning, evening and even weekend care.

City Tots and other licensed family settings account for just over 10 percent of child care.

A much bigger portion -- nearly half the child care in Minnesota -- is supplied by unlicensed families, friends and neighbors. 

The Minnesota Department of Human Services asked the Wilder Center in St. Paul to analyze results from a survey of more than 1,200 families who use day care.

Not surprisingly, most parents say they want high quality care for their children, but a third say for one reason or another they have to take what they can get.

That's especially true for poor families who account for more than one-fourth of Minnesota's children age 12 and under.

Wilder scientist Richard Chase said home-based care with loving and nurturing family, friends or neighbors can be excellent. There can also be problems.

"Like parents, 10 to 20 percent of them might be depressed. Like parents, many of them might be illiterate. Like parents, they might have other stressors in their life that might prevent them from being nurturing caregivers," Chase said. "We have to be frank and honest about that if we want all kids to be ready for school by 2020 if that's our goal."

Chase is referring to a goal that within 10 years all Minnesota children entering kindergarten will be far enough along in their development to do well in school.

Right now, about half of Minnesota children entering kindergarten aren't adequately prepared. 

Erin Sullivan Sutton, Minnesota Department of Human Services assistant commissioner for children and family services, says she sees elected officials, business owners and parents lining up behind improved child care.

"Especially the teaching component in child care, especially for those kids who are most high risk, so that we have more children who are ready to enter kindergarten and are prepared to do that and be successful."

But the recession is posing a big barrier to meeting that goal.

Low-income families in Minnesota with jobs are eligible for a child care subsidy. If the workers lose their job, the subsidy often goes away as well.

Barbara Yates directs Resources for Child Care, a Twin Cities-based non profit that helps train child care providers.

Yates said linking a child care subsidy to keeping one's job won't help the state reach the goal of getting children ready for school.

"We don't pull children out of second grade when their parents lose their job, and we shouldn't do that in child care either," she said.

But many people don't see child care as part of the education system. They see it as a place where kids go to play, eat and nap.

Ann McCully directs the Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network. The non-profit helps Minnesota families find child care and trains child care workers.

McCully said child care here should be viewed the way it is in some other developed countries: as an extension of the country's education system.

She said that doesn't mean three-year-olds bent over completing worksheets, but a system where there's enough money to help families get access to good quality care.

"We support higher education with subsidies and grants, we support the K-12 system, should we be supporting the early education years?" she said. "Controversial issue, lot of people say that's all about just the family, but I think it's something that needs to be discussed."

There is not, at the moment, much hope of more money to help families especially low-income families afford child care.

Advocates worry that money and programs will be sliced as the state copes with its $6.2 billion budget deficit.