Centers close as demand for child care plummets
Operators cite unemployment rate, cuts to subsidies for working poor
Goodwill Industries told parents this week that it will shut its child care center on Jan. 13, the latest closure among Spokane-area facilities struggling to fill vacancies due to high unemployment and state cuts in subsidies to working poor families.
“Simply put, the need for child care has dropped significantly because many parents are out of work,” read a Nov. 28 letter from Goodwill CEO Clark Brekke to families with children in the nonprofit organization’s ABC Discovery Child Care Center.
The center, which is licensed to care for 74 children, has seen its enrollment decline during the past three years to a little more than 50 children today, said Michele Harris, director of workforce and family services for Goodwill.
The announced closure of ABC Discovery, which has been in operation since 1993, was another blow to the child care industry in a community where the jobless rate remains stuck above 9 percent.
In 2008, there were 575 child care centers and licensed child care family homes in the Spokane area, according to the Washington Department of Early Learning. Today there are 446.
The Child Care Resource and Referral agency that serves northeastern Washington estimated that Spokane County has lost 3,500 child care slots in the past three years, resulting in the loss of about 543 child care jobs.
Cuts in the state Working Connections Child Care subsidy program for the working poor have contributed greatly to the decline in enrollment at child care facilities.
Since October 2010, when stricter eligibility limits were put into place, more than 3,600 families have lost their subsidies. In March, the enrollment for the subsidies was capped at 35,200 families per month, creating a waiting list for the first time. In July, the cap was lowered to 33,200 families.
The current special session of the Legislature will consider further cuts of as much as $50 million or 12 percent of the Working Connections budget in 2011-’12, which could result in about 4,000 fewer households on the program.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a half-cent hike in the state sales tax, which would be used to “buy back” several items on her proposed list of cuts, including child care subsidies.
On Oct. 31, the Maple Street Children’s Center in north Spokane closed after the facility, licensed for 100 children, saw its enrollment drop to 12 children in full-time care, said owner-operator Sarah Groh, who attributed the decline to cuts in state subsidies for families.
“They have to pay so much out of pocket that they can’t afford to work,” Groh said of the families. “If they are still working they are having Tom, Dick and Harry watch their kids.”
Groh consolidated her businesses into a smaller center named Busy Bodies on the Mukogawa Fort George Wright campus.
Kathy Thamm, executive director of Community Minded Enterprises, said child care centers that can’t get “private-pay” parents to help fill vacancies risk going out of business. As a result, facilities are moving away from low-income areas of the city.
“It’s scary when you think about it,” said Thamm, who added that working poor parents now have to place their children “in situations that maybe aren’t the safest.”
Spokane Public Schools, which operates the Express Child Care Program before and after school, has seen participation drop dramatically in the last two years.
Six sites have been closed since 2010, said Kuray Oman, an Express supervisor.
“Families, because of the economy, are being really frugal, so they are making cuts where they can, and unfortunately that’s child care,” Oman said.
The cost for six weeks of before- and after-school care is about $400, comparable to YMCA and community center prices. Oman said that enrollment at Sheridan Elementary School, one of Express’ “higher Working Connection sites,” was halved between September 2010 and January 2011. Overall, this year the district has 150 fewer Working Connection families in Express, she said.
“Our main concern is: Parents are making the choice to not send their kids to us after school,” Oman said, “so where are the kids?”