Freeland resident Andrea Downs started searching for child care when she was less than halfway through her pregnancy.
She researched multiple child care facilities, both on Whidbey Island and in Everett where she worked at the time. Location after location failed to suit her family’s needs.
Some didn’t operate during the hours she would need to accommodate her commute to work. Some were so far out of her way they would add over an hour to her daily commute. Some had waitlists over a year and a half long.
With limited options and time, Downs decided to hire a private nanny. Despite the greater expense, Downs said she considers it a privilege that her family even had that option.
“If we were not in the situation that we were in, I don’t know what we would have done. I genuinely don’t,” she said. “I honestly think we probably would have had to end up moving.”
Downs’ experience isn’t unique among parents on Whidbey Island. Officials have identified high costs of child care and a lack of availability as significant public health and economic challenges for the workforce.
The Island County Child Care Partnership Task Force reported in its June 2021 Needs Assessment that in Island County, where the median household income is $68,604, the typical annual cost of child care is $13,000. That means on average, Island County residents are spending at least 19 percent of their income on child care.
According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, child care costs are considered affordable when they do not exceed 7 percent of total household income.
Downs said reducing child care expenses to 7 percent would make a huge difference for her family and others.
“I don’t know any family where that wouldn’t be significant,” she said. “That’s savings, that’s college funds, that’s vacations.”
Washington does offer child care subsidies to low-income families through the Working Connections Child Care program, but the program is fraught with pitfalls. For example, if household income increases by a relatively low amount which pushes it over the Working Connections limit, the family will lose the subsidy and their child care expenses will increase at an astronomical rate compared to the increase in income, according to Theresa Sanders, director of Island County Assessment and Healthy Communities.
Sanders said some military families on Whidbey Island who might otherwise qualify for the subsidy have been denied because they receive housing assistance which raises their income in the eyes of the state program.
“We have a pretty low percentage of our population, even our population that’s eligible, that actually uses the subsidy, so to me that means there’s either a lack of education, or it’s really cumbersome to apply for it,” she said.
Issues in the affordability of child care aren’t unique to Island County, according to Sanders. She said child care is expensive all over the country, and there are multiple systemic factors contributing to its high cost.
For example, unlike K-12 education, most child care is not backed by a governmental support system.
“We kind of start at kindergarten, even though we have a ton of public health data to support the importance of that investment (in early childhood education and child care) in terms of long-term community health,” Sanders said.
Affordability isn’t the only issue plaguing Island County child care. Accessibility is also a serious problem. The Needs Assessment indicated that Island County licensed child care availability only meets the needs of 550, or around 11 percent, of the county’s 4,849 children under age 6 who have parents in the workforce.
This figure isn’t indicative of how expensive child care is, but rather represents a lack of available space.
Clinton resident Ansel Santosa, who recently started taking his 2-year-old daughter to the Children’s Center in Langley for two to three days a week, said he was on their waitlist for more than a year.
Elizabeth Falls, owner and director of Little Oaks Preschool in Oak Harbor, said the facility almost never calls anyone from their waitlist because they stay consistently full; when spots do open up, they usually bump up children from younger classes.
Many military families experience the same challenges. Sanders said she’s heard from representatives at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
“They are very clear that they have a child care issue,” she said. “Their waitlist and need is vastly more than the number of slots that they have at their child care development centers.”
Downs, whose husband is in the Navy, said that the first place she looked into while pregnant was base care, but the center was a year and six months out from placement, by which point she planned to have finished maternity leave and returned to the workforce.
When Island residents can’t make traditional child care facilities work for them, they often rely upon friends and family members for help. Sanders said that on South Whidbey especially, where childcare facilities are few but retirees are plentiful, many parents rely upon their children’s grandparents for care.
While “family, friend and neighbor” care, as Sanders terms it, is an important part of the child care system, there are certain concerns associated with this type of care. It can strain relationships by overburdening family members, Sanders said, and non-professional care does not guarantee children are engaging in developmentally appropriate activities.
Janet Harris is a South End grandmother who often watches her two youngest grandchildren. Sometimes the kids attend the Children’s Center in Langley for daycare and after school care, but the center’s hours don’t always meet the family’s needs.
Harris’s daughter, a single parent, was recently injured at her painting and construction job and often has to attend last-minute meetings with Labor and Industries insurance representatives or doctor appointments at odd hours. When these appointments come up, she relies upon Harris to care for her children, which Harris does for free.
“The cost is my sanity and my physical being,” she joked. “I’m too old for this. I keep telling my daughter, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Problems in the child care system are a gender equity issue, Sanders said. The American employment system is founded on the idea that every worker has a spouse at home to manage the household and care for the children, an assumption that the workforce has yet to shake off.
“Child care has traditionally been work that women did, which isn’t often prioritized in our culture,” Sanders said.
In its 2021 special report, the Island County Child Care Partnership Task Force recommended several policies to help mitigate the cost and inaccessibility of child care. Recommendations included using money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund new child care facilities and subsidize costs for families, creating an Island County Child Care Provider network to facilitate training and giving child care providers living wages and benefits to mirror K-12 instructors.