Finding Affordable Child Care In W.Va. Leaves Some Working Parents Short On Options
Sunlight streamed into Megan Kruger’s kitchen on a warm summer day as she sat at the table in front of her laptop, dressed for work. As the noon hour approached, she closed her computer. It was lunchtime. She poured red sauce with meatballs into a skillet. Some sauce splattered on her blue dress and she dabbed it off with a kitchen towel. She told her husband to wake the baby. She sliced strawberries, warmed pasta and set out plates.
Like many work-from-home moms during the pandemic, the separation between work life and home life blurred many months ago.
There are positives to this arrangement, like seeing your smiling baby boy wake up from his mid-day nap.
But it’s also exhausting.
“I wake up super early so I can start work. I work all day until he [Kruger’s husband] has to go to work and then I take care of the kids, do dinner, do bath time, do bedtime all by myself and then get up and do it again,” Kruger said.
West Virginia has the lowest workforce participation rate of women in the country. According to West Virginia Women Moving Forward, a consortium of private and public stakeholders interested in issues affecting working women in the state, a lack of child care is often the reason West Virginia moms who want to work are not able to. They either can’t find child care, or they can’t afford it.
The overnight closure last year of schools and forced isolation from extended families and caregivers exposed these child care challenges for all to see, but these issues pre-date the pandemic.
Kruger and her husband, Nathan Stewart, have adjusted to the child care challenges they have faced, both during the pandemic and prior to it, but it required significant career and lifestyle changes.
Early in 2020, Kruger was in a new job. She was pregnant and the family had recently moved into a house in Morgantown’s First Ward District. Stewart was general manager at a restaurant in Morgantown. Their daughter Nora was in kindergarten. Things were falling into place, but then the pandemic forced businesses and schools to close and Stewart lost his job in the restaurant industry.
“I was devastated from losing my job because I loved my job,” said Stewart. “And the fact that we were in the unknown was scary; it was frightening.”
Just after their baby boy was born in September, Stewart started a job, working nights at the West Virginia University Library. The job paid half what he earned in his previous position, but this arrangement allowed the couple to avoid child care costs.
Earlier in their relationship, Kruger made a career choice largely based on child care. Kruger earned her bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries at WVU. She wanted to be a wildlife biologist, but the internships she would need were unpaid, far away and unaccommodating for a mother.
As a result, Kruger embarked on a career in environmental education. She completed local internships and was hired for her first full-time job. Then the hunt for child care for her daughter began. She finally found a place in another town about 20 miles away. They would spend two-hours a day in the car going to and from daycare.
For Krista and Matthew Dixon of Fairmont, the commute to child care is much shorter. Since they had their first child four years ago, their parents, who live nearby, have provided care for free. With the anticipation of another baby on the way early last year, the couple thought that arrangement would continue. Then came the ultimate surprise: they learned at an ultrasound in early 2020 that they were having twins.
“I looked over, my husband was just, he was as pale as could be. I thought he might actually pass out,” Dixon remembered with a smile and laugh.
Dixon said she and her husband looked into child care centers. They realized that asking grandparents to watch three children under five was a big ask. But sending all three kids to a center was going to cost between $2,500 and $3,000 a month, Dixon said, and at that rate, it wouldn’t make financial sense for her to work.
But she didn’t want to leave her job at a local non-profit that helps those in poverty, so they turned to grandparents again to care for the children three days a week while she and her husband made special arrangements to cover the other two workdays.
“So my husband now works one day over the weekend, takes off one day during the week, and then I work from home and take care of the children for one day. So that's how we're making it work right now,” Dixon explained.
But if someone gets sick or has an appointment, there’s a lot of scrambling to figure out child care for the day.
“It is something that you would think would be so simple, something that so many people need,” Dixon said. “But it is incredibly, incredibly stressful -- whether it's trying to find affordable, safe child care or even the availability of it -- it's a major problem.”
Many parents are caught in a difficult financial situation where they don’t qualify for government subsidies but also don’t make enough to pay out-of-pocket for dependent care, according to West Virginia University Research Scholar Priscila Santos.
“In theory, it creates a disincentive for participation because why am I going to leave home and spend like a third or a half of what I'm making to pay for child care and try to survive on the rest?” Santos said.
Through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, families may be eligible to receive help with child care costs; it’s a sliding scale based on income. For example, a family of four would be eligible for partial assistance if their income is less than approximately $48,000 a year. For full assistance - meaning the family pays nothing for child care - a family of four would have to make less than approximately $10,300 a year.
At the same time, child care providers usually operate on thin margins. The nature of child care means the industry is labor intensive and heavily regulated.
A West Virginia Women Moving Forward report, authored by Santos and published last year, offers suggestions to support early care and education in the state, such as through a “shared services” network for providers, that could lower costs and improve quality.
“If we could come up with ideas to provide centralized services, and that could also include janitorial services and food services, that way, child care workers would only be focused on their main mission of educating and caring for children,” said Santos.
There is a push underway at the federal level to increase support for early care and education. As part of the COVID relief bill passed earlier this year, child tax credits for 2021 increased and some of that credit is being distributed to parents and caregivers in advance this year. There are income limits to qualify but they are much higher than the current eligibility limits for child care subsidies through the state.
While Kruger and Stewart do not qualify for the subsidies offered through the state, they are receiving the advance child tax credit payments this year.
“I mean, that's a game changer,” said Kruger. “And if I would have had that when I had my first baby, things could have been extremely different.”