When she couldn’t get a spot for her daughter at the child care center her son attended, Mykenzie Ritschard had to quit her job to stay home with her two kids.
“I was a dental assistant, which was my dream job, my forever job, but I couldn’t stay without child care,” she said.
An autism diagnosis for her son last summer changed her path, and that of her family, again.
“Peer support and socialization were crucial for his development, but the child care waiting lists were beyond belief, so I applied for a job at The Growing Tree so my kids could go there,” she said.
The Growing Tree is a child care center in New Glarus that was started 10 years ago by co-owner Brooke Skidmore, who said the business has “ always struggled to find and retain qualified teachers because we cannot pay them what they really need.”
Skidmore said she has seen 44 teachers leave in the last decade because of low pay, and those departures have left classrooms empty while waitlists grow.
According to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan policy research organization, child care workers in the state who are rated as “lead educators” are paid an average of $12.01 an hour for a 40-hour work week and often receive no voluntary benefits, while retail workers with no required qualifications earn over $15 an hour and receive benefits such as health insurance and a retirement plan.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and public health so I know I could be doing a different job and making a lot more money,” Ritschard said. “It’s not my dream to be here, but getting free child care is what makes up for the low wages. I love children and I love the teaching aspect, but it’s hard when the wages are low and the work does take a mental toll on you.”
Wisconsin child care providers like Skidmore say they had come to rely on Child Care Counts, a federally funded state program that helped them avoid closing down, improve pay and keep costs down for parents. But now that the state Legislature rejected Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to keep funding the program after the federal aid expires this year, they face even bigger financial dilemmas. Many of the state’s centers expect to shut down altogether, and others will need to charge more for each child they take in.
“For me to pay my teachers a living wage and retain them, I would need to substantially increase our prices, but my families wouldn’t be able to afford that,” Skidmore said. “I have no choice but to raise (The Growing Tree’s rates) now that Child Care Counts funding is being cut.”
According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum report, providers are unable to pay their workers a living wage because of the high costs of running a child care center – rent, materials, food, maintenance, utilities, and other expenses – and because of the low staff-to-child ratios necessary for child safety. Centers must either invest in a larger staff and split their limited revenue among- more employees, or hire fewer employees and enroll fewer children, resulting in lower earnings.
How Child Care Counts started, and how it’s going
Evers created the Child Care Counts Payment program in May 2020 to help child care providers remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. It used over $300 million of federal money, which Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families says helped over 3,300 providers and 22,000 child care professionals continue to provide care for over 113,000 children.
In his 2023-2025 budget, Evers allocated $340 million for a permanent Child Care Counts program, but Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed the funding. Instead, Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said financial support for child care providers would be in the form of a $15 million Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. revolving loan fund under the Legislature’s budget.
Evers used his partial veto power before signing the budget on Wednesday to recategorize the $15 million as grants, not loans. He said that this measure would help, but is not “a long-term solution to our state’s longstanding child care crisis.”
The current funding for Child Care Counts will run out in January 2024.
High demand for child care, diminishing supply
While demand for child care is high, supply is limited and likely to decrease further. A March report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty showed that more than 60% of providers planned to increase tuition, while 32% were considering leaving their jobs or closing their centers if Child Care Counts did not continue.
Meanwhile, a report by public policy research institute The Century Foundation found that it would take most parents who regularly pay for child care one to three months to find a suitable replacement if their provider became unavailable, with one in five estimating it would take four months or longer. Data from the nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization Center for American Progress shows that 54% of Wisconsinites already live in a child care desert, and access is particularly limited for rural families and Latino families.
Andrea Viscarra has been running In My Garden Bilingual Daycare in Madison for 16 years and has always tried to keep her prices low because most of the families she caters to are low-income.
Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, she said she used Child Care Counts funding to fairly compensate all of her teachers, some of whom have been with her for over a decade, but that’s not sustainable since the money will run out soon. She will no longer be able to have the same number of children at the center given the quality of child care she is expected to provide.
Wisconsin child care costs more than college
The cost of child care for most parents is significantly higher than the federal recommendation of 7% of a household’s income – in Wisconsin, infant care is 18.5% of the median family income, according to the think tank Economic Policy Institute. The average annual child care cost is $10,197 for a 4-year-old and $12,567 for an infant, which is higher than that of in-state tuition for a four-year public college and average rent.
For Madison-based therapist Miriam Porat and state health department employee Scott Coleman, their 3-year-old’s child care tuition is their biggest expense, which will soon increase substantially when their 9-month-old starts going to the Red Caboose Child Care Center part-time, since the couple cannot afford full-time tuition.
“We’re in a small house, and we’d like to be in a bigger house, but there’s no way we can do that while paying for child care because it takes up such a huge chunk of our funding,” Coleman said. “As long as we’re paying for this, it feels like we can’t make any other big changes we might want to make in our life either. It’s like you’re in stasis until you move past this part of your life.”
The most common reason young adults gave for having fewer children than they wanted in a 2018 survey for The New York Times was that child care is too expensive. Porat has had this concern, too.
“I don’t want day care to determine whether or not we have another kid,” Porat said. “That feels bad, but it’s hard not to look at a kid and be like OK, that’s $60,000 more from our paychecks just for child care.”
“We’re having to spend money on child care so that we can go to work to pay for the child care,” Coleman said.
Dianna Wells, a Madison resident whose children attend Corrine’s Little Explorers in New Glarus because of the lower cost in that area, said 30% of the combined income she and her husband make goes toward child care.
“It costs twice as much as our mortgage,” Wells said. “We don’t go out to eat anymore, we budget and save every penny. The most frustrating part is that we both have master’s degrees but at 42 I’m not doing better than my parents, neither of whom has a college degree.”
“I’m not mad at my child care provider. She’s going to have to raise rates when she loses Child Care Counts funding. She has to make a living and I don’t think she makes more than $10 an hour. She is knowledgeable, she is my children’s nurse and their psychologist, and helps with their developmental skills – she deserves more than $10 an hour,” Wells said.
Eligibility gaps for low-income family assistance
For low-income families and single parents, affording child care is difficult, in spite of the Wisconsin Shares Child Care Subsidy Program, which assists families earning below 185% of the federal poverty level.
“It’s something of a Catch-22 because you need a job to qualify for the program, but most people who need it need child care in the first place in order to get a job,” said Cameron Campbell of Cindy Campbell’s Daycare in Superior. “So it’s a double-edged sword.”
The Campbells already charge relatively low rates. “Currently it is around $500 a month for one child when it really should be around $800. We work with families to give them discounted rates but really, I’m not making any money myself.”
Nicole Braun, whose son attends Campbell’s center, is a single mother who struggles even with a discounted rate.
“When I was in health care, my income was low and I qualified for child care assistance, but now that I’m working construction and making considerably more, I am unable to qualify,” she said. “Yet unlike when I was making less money, my fridge is never full, I have to pick and choose what bills I pay on time, I have to utilize food shelves, and have to say no to my son when he asks if we can buy something more often than not.”
Providers subsidize Wisconsin families’ costs
Corrine Hendrickson, who runs Corrine’s Little Explorers from her home in New Glarus, also tries to keep tuition low.
“I haven’t increased my prices since 2018, so pre-COVID I was earning $6 an hour, but Child Care Counts funding meant I could earn $12 an hour. I could afford to hire a substitute so that I could go to appointments, do things with my family and get my capstone certificate in infant, early childhood and family mental health at UW-Madison,” Hendrickson said.
“For the first time I actually have a little bit of savings and cushion,” she said. “It’s really sad – I’m 43 and I haven’t really been able to put anything much towards retirement.”
“Child care businesses are not trying to be greedy and we’re not trying to just take all this money,” Hendrickson said. “We honestly charge the market rate, which is what we think parents can afford. And because we don’t charge what we should be charging, which is the true cost of care, those of us who work in the field are subsidizing the parents and their employers, to be perfectly honest.”
Coleman, the parent from Madison, said the situation “seems like a classic case for government intervention.”
“The market just isn’t working for anyone,” he said. “We need to have the government pay part of the bill to lower the burden on families but also increase the salary of child care workers at the same time.”
“I hate to say the word subsidy, but child care needs to be subsidized,” said Wells, the parent whose child attends Corrine’s Little Explorers. “It’s really an investment in our future.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the child care facility that Dianna Wells’ children attend.