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More Than Half is a podcast that uncovers serious challenges facing Utah women and why it takes all of us, regardless of gender, to overcome them.

High Cost Of Child Care

Utah is ranked among the last in the nation for access to affordable child care. Parents seeking care for children under the age of six can pay upwards of $1,400 a month per child. These high costs aren’t just affecting families, but the economy as well, as mothers struggle to succeed in the workforce.

In this episode, we hear from Anna Robbins, a single mom whose struggle to find care for her baby cost her financial hardships and career opportunities. We also speak with Marin Christensen of the Utah Child Care Cooperative and Representative Suzanne Harrison as they push to make child care more affordable and accessible.

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Episode Transcript

ANDREA: Welcome to More Than Half, a podcast that uncovers challenges facing Utah women and why it takes all of us to overcome them. I'm Andrea Smardon. Utah has one of the highest fertility rates in the nation. And many people move here in search of a better place to raise a family. But with so many young children, Utah is ranked last in the nation for access to childcare.

Today in the program, we're going to take a look at the childcare crisis in the state and how it's affecting families and the economy. In this episode, we hear from a single mother who lost career opportunities because she couldn't find adequate care for her son. And we hear from women in the community who are working to make childcare more affordable and accessible for all parents.


ANDREA: Before becoming a mother, Anna traveled around the world. While she was in Africa she noticed something very different about the ways communities raise children.

ANNA ROBBINS: Everybody pretty much raises the child, like you're holding your baby, right? And you're trying to get something from your top shelf and you're struggling. A woman will come in and she'll take your baby. She'll take your baby. And generally in America, we're like, "That's sketchy. Don't touch my child." And we would go and we'd help them grab the item on the shelf. But in Africa, they're very much like, "Let's take the baby," because they're all working together to help this child grow. I don't know if that's the most perfect system, but it's a very trusting system. It's a system where everybody can trust each other. Everybody's helping each other. And the child is growing.


ANDREA: But Anna's own experience being a mother has been very different. She's a single mom with no paternal support from the father of her baby. Her struggle to find affordable care for her son, Rio, while she works full time has left her feeling stressed and alone. We interviewed her on a Sunday, one of the few windows of time she had. You may hear her one-year-old son, Rio, in the background.


Rio, say hi.

[Rio laughing]

ANDREA: Before moving to Utah, Anna lived in Virginia.

ANNA: I was in a very awesome career. I was a Personal Trainer. I was doing well.

ANDREA: But once she got pregnant, she had a number of worrisome questions running through her head, not about being a new mom or raising a baby, but about how she was going to manage full-time work and care for Rio at the same time.

ANNA: Well, what job am I going to get that's going to be able to pay for daycare? And what happens if I have to work on the weekend? And what happens if I have to go on call? Or what happens if I have to stay longer? And so that's a big reason why I moved to Utah, just because I need to go to a place where I can do this on my own, cost of living will be less and I can figure things out.

ANDREA: She'd heard Utah was family friendly. She thought it might give her more opportunities to pursue her dreams. But once she got here, she noticed that childcare looked a little different in Utah.

ANNA: I learned very quickly that people rely on their family, right? So mom goes to work and drop the kid off at grandma and grandpa's and grandma and grandpas' there and they can help watch the kid. And then a lot of parents rely on the church system. So they sometimes call over the 12-year-old across the street and that works for them.

ANDREA: Without family in the area this wasn't an option for her.

ANNA: I had to go back to work three weeks after Rio was born. So it was tough.

ANDREA: When she started to look into daycare options, other barriers emerged.

ANNA: Daycare is so expensive. And it was getting frustrating, because I kept losing jobs because of daycare. So while I was looking for a job that would work with childcare, I was missing out on pay. Then I would finally get into a childcare and it was like, "Okay, now I've got to scramble to pay for everything."


ANDREA: Utah, like the rest of the nation, is facing an unprecedented childcare crisis. Utah parents needing care for children under the age of six can often find themselves on a year-long waiting list. Tuition costs vary, but can be up to $1,400 a month for a single child. That's what the average Utahan spends on their mortgage.

SUZANNE HARRISON: We have one of the most dire situations in terms of access to affordable childcare.

ANDREA: Suzanne Harrison is a mother of three and a medical doctor. She also serves in the Utah House of Representatives, where she's worked on childcare issues.

SUZANNE: There are several counties that don't have a single licensed childcare provider in the county in Utah. Those are known as childcare deserts.

ANDREA: Childcare deserts exist all over the U.S. and major cities across the country are grappling with high childcare costs. Suzanne said that Utah is ranked among the last states in the nation for access to affordable childcare.

SUZANNE: We know from research that's been done that for every one spot that exists in the childcare space, there are over four kids in need of care.

ANDREA: If childcare is in such high demand, why are there so few providers?

SUZANNE: It is expensive to own and operate a licensed childcare facility.

ANDREA: Between building leases and salaries, most childcare centers hardly make a profit, if any. And even with high costs, most childcare workers don't make a living wage. It leaves many families struggling to find care.

SUZANNE: There was a study that came out not too long ago that showed that 63% of Utah families can't afford their childcare costs and costs are continuing to increase. We need solutions and one solution is public policy.

ANDREA: Anna continued to try and find care for Rio. When she would find a center she liked, there wouldn't be any openings.

ANNA: They were like, "Well, we can put you on our waiting list, but we don't have anything available till March." And right now it's October. So I'm like, "What am I supposed to do till March?"

ANDREA: When Rio was about three months old, Anna was able to secure a spot for him at a daycare center. At the time she was working as a Corrections Officer. She didn't have a nine-to-five schedule and her shifts were often long. She struggled to meet Rio's daycare schedule.

ANNA: So sometimes I'd be at work and they would call me and like, "We need you to come pick up your son." Then I had to worry about finding people to go pick him up, because I got out late and they closed early.

ANDREA: If Anna wasn't able to find someone to pick up Rio, she would have to pay expensive late fees.

ANNA: For having the childcare people either earlier for longer. So it was just this constant battle.

ANDREA: Trying to balance her shifts along daycare hours started to affect her work duties. Her Police Supervisor began talking with her about the issue.

ANNA: They did give me several disciplinary talks about my schedule and about being late, about missing things and about how I was going to make it work, because I just felt so bad. And I was tired of getting in trouble.

ANDREA: She started taking Rio to a 24-hour daycare center.

ANNA: And I needed it because as a Police Officer, you need to be able to leave 24 hours. So I had to use it.

ANDREA: She says care at the 24-hour center wasn't at the same standard as other centers.

ANNA: I wanted there to be cameras. I wanted to be able to know what was going on, so that was really frustrating, because I was paying a lot more money to have him go. But they could charge that much, because they're the only 24-hour daycare and people are going to need them.

ANDREA: Eventually, Anna made the hard decision to leave the police force in search of a job that would be more conducive to Rio's schedule.

ANNA: I think it's unfair that people have to work in certain jobs in order to make childcare work. If you want to be a Police Officer, you should be able to be a Police Officer. Childcare should not ever be an issue for someone to pursue their career.


ANDREA: There's an organization in the state that's working to create better options for people like Anna. The Utah Childcare Cooperative, also known as UC3, is dedicated to making childcare accessible and affordable. We spoke with UC3 Vice-President Marin Christensen.

MARIN CHRISTENSEN: Women from the outset, in high school, are choosing careers that they think will be family friendly because they know childcare is unaffordable and unattainable.

ANDREA: Marin is also studying to get a second Master's degree in Human Development and Social Policy and has done a lot of research on women in the workforce.

MARIN: There's plenty of women out there that may want to go back to school, that may want to work on their skills, may want to work their way up in their careers, but they're unable to because of the lack of affordable childcare.

ANDREA: The 2019 census showed that over 50% of women with children are working mothers.

MARIN: We have more mothers in the workforce than a lot of the rest of the country.

ANDREA: But Marin says they often have to take jobs that are part-time, low wage or unbenefited in order to meet their children's needs. And this ultimately has an effect on our economy. Research conducted by Childcare Aware of America showed that 29 billion in wages are lost annually by working families who do not have access to affordable childcare and paid family or medical leave.

MARIN: So here we have women not taking advantage of all of their talents and, obviously, women are such scrappers and so brilliant and multitaskers. Just imagine the talent we're missing out on.

ANDREA: Marin says the issue of childcare can often come back to gender.

MARIN: Utah's an environment that still very much values the nuclear family, where the mom stays at home. It's just not the reality of Utahns. The fact of the matter is we need two incomes to survive the high cost of living everywhere. There's student loan debt, there's healthcare. Our housing is unaffordable. So doubly worse for single moms. So doubly worse for minority families, minority women.

ANDREA: As a legislator, Suzanne recognized how the lack of affordable childcare was affecting Utah's economy and workforce. In 2020 she proposed two bills that she hoped would incentivize companies to create better benefits for working families. HB 187 would give a tax credit to employers who would help pay for a portion of their employees' childcare costs. House Bill 89 would provide tax credits to Utah companies that provided working parent benefits.

SUZANNE: I was very deliberate in my presentation to the committee to never once mention a gender in these bills or that these bills were addressing any gender. To me, this is a parent issue. This is a working family issue. And ultimately, this is an economic development issue.

ANDREA: By framing it as an economic issue, the hope was to avoid discussions around gender and beliefs that women should be at home to raise children.

SUZANNE: We want to attract companies that prioritize and value families. And one of the best ways to show that you value families is having a flexible work schedule or help with paying for childcare or paid family leave.

ANDREA: While there were a number of businesses and organizations in support of Suzanne's bills, neither passed.

SUZANNE: It's very clear that this is an issue that has reached market failure. And how do we make sure that we're investing in our most precious resource, which is our children, while parents pursue educational or economic needs, which is getting a job or going to school?


ANDREA: In Anna's search for a job that would support her and Rio, she experienced some pretty tough discrimination.

ANNA: I'll be honest. I've heard some hard things of like, "Well, maybe you shouldn't have kept your baby if you weren't going to be able to take care of it. But you've chosen to keep your child so now you have to live with the choices."

ANDREA: She found this to be especially true with male employers.

ANNA: I sometimes struggle when I'm talking to a male employer and he was just like, "Are you sure there's nobody who can help you? Why don't you just send him to your mom?" Or like, "I don't know what you're going to do."

ANDREA: After leaving the police force, Anna still struggled to find childcare. It cost her more than one job.

ANNA: Rio, he's only a year. He's literally been in five day cares. I lost a lot of time and a lot of money trying to figure out ways to make childcare work.

ANDREA: She applied for childcare support from the state's Department of Workforce Services.

ANNA: It took me a long time to go through it and understand the process.

ANDREA: It only covered a portion of her childcare.

ANNA: Then I'd have to get another job, which means I need more longer daycare hours, which means I'm paying more. So it was just this constant battle.

ANDREA: She told us that the more jobs she got or the higher wages she made, the less state funding she received. The issue is often called the cliff effect. Because most state funding is only available for very low income individuals, once someone starts making more money, their funding is taken away. But the increase in wages is less than the funding they received. In essence, a raise can put a person further into poverty.

ANNA: The stigma is that single moms live off government money. If you want us to get out of poverty and stay out of poverty, then we have to do something. We have to work. And so if that's your goal, is the economy, is to keep people working and to keep people being self reliant and to keep people thriving, then provide resources that allow them to do so. You can't fault somebody if you don't provide them with a solution to overcome that.

ANDREA: Marin says the cliff effect is a common dilemma facing low-wage working mothers. They often won't take a promotion or seek a better paying job because they will lose the funding. It's one of the reasons UC3 is so dedicated to helping the childcare situation in Utah.

MARIN: Being able to afford childcare at all is quite a luxury. The state has brought into their eligibility for childcare subsidies, but even so it's still unaffordable and unattainable for most families. So there's this huge gap of lower middle class to middle class that are just really having to make these tough sacrifices and it's usually women.

ANDREA: One of UC3's missions is to work closely with employers in finding childcare solutions for their employees, making sure businesses know the benefits providing childcare can bring.

MARIN: Childcare would be an amazing benefit for employers to offer if they want to increase diversity in women and diversity in race.

ANDREA: Research shows that businesses that offer more flexibility in scheduling, paid parental leave and other parent benefits result in better productivity and employee retention. Marin says that an ideal solution would involve both the state and businesses working together.

MARIN: But we're focusing on businesses right now, because it's in their best interest to offer competitive benefits and also increase the diversity into their workforce.

ANDREA: Marin says UC3 finds that many companies in Utah simply aren't aware of all the options available to help support working parents.


MARIN: That's where we start. We'll go in and do an Employee Needs Assessment and really figure out the preferences of their employees. It could be a combination of things. Say you're a part of a couple and your husband gets healthcare insurance for both of you. You don't need it. So instead you'll choose a childcare benefit. That's amazing. There's a consortium model where a bunch of businesses that are all near each other rent slots from a childcare provider.

ANDREA: And they hope to continue pushing the needle forward towards making childcare a non-gendered issue.

MARIN: We need to change the conversation to working parent, not working mother. Create a culture from the top down that supports gender neutral parental leave policies that they encourage everyone to use. Create workplace equality and make childcare not gendered.


ANNA: There's a lot of shame for working moms. I don't think that's fair. Yes, I work. I have to work though. That's why I think it's so important that there's a better childcare system, because it does take a village.

ANDREA: Today Anna is studying to get a Master's in Communication and getting her teacher's credentials. She's also teaching physical education and health at the American Prep Academy. While she loves getting to teach a subject she's passionate about, Anna said that a big reason she took the job was that the Academy offered onsite childcare.

ANNA: Which is such a blessing. And it's super affordable childcare. I love that. The thing that I don't love is that I'm privileged to get this and somebody else isn't.

ANDREA: When she thinks about her hope for the future of childcare, she thinks back to her time in Africa.

ANNA: An educated woman who educates a child is powerful in society. So we need that. And that's why I think it's so important that there's a better childcare system so that parents, moms can pursue their goals and aspirations and contribute to society.

ANDREA: While the village is there to support children, Anna reminds us that affordable quality childcare also supports parents.

ANNA: We need help. We need support. I think it takes a village to raise a mom, too.

ANDREA: To learn more about ANNA, visit You'll also find a link to the Utah Childcare Cooperative and other resources on childcare. This is a PBS Utah production. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please rate and review. Research interviews and production conducted by Alicia Rice and Ashley Swansong. Join us next week as we learn about historical trauma in native communities and how women are leading the movement to heal.

KRISTINA GROVES Intergenerational trauma is handed down, but that resilience also gets handed down. And that tagline that we are still here is big because we are.

ANDREA: I'm ANDREA and I hope you'll join us next time on More Than Half.