Waiting lists hundreds of families long. Rotating classroom closures. Children going to work with parents. Businesses with unfilled positions. Parents leaving the workforce to stay home with their kids.  

Four members of the Iowa IMPACT team gather in person at the program's 2023 convening

Members of the Iowa IMPACT in Public Health team gathered in person in 2023, where they developed their idea for a wage supplement program.

This is what the child care crisis looks like in northern Iowa, where a year of high-quality child care consumes 14% of average household income, yet child care workers make only $9.51 an hour. Most child care centers are nonprofits with thin, if any, profit margins.

Early care providers are on the front lines of public health — protecting and nurturing children, guiding their development, and supporting their parents. And when families have reliable, accessible, affordable child care, they can go to work, knowing their children are being well cared for. Therefore, sustaining the child care workforce is an important goal for public health and business to work toward together.

When our North Central Iowa team first connected with de Beaumont’s Innovative, Multi-sector Partnerships for Community Transformation (IMPACT) in Public Health initiative, we thought we had a solution to the child care crisis: We had just seen a PBS special about a college that started a child care center, allowing parents to return to school to earn their degrees while their children were taken care of. These parents often pursued careers in child care, so this model also helped to increase the workforce. Inspired by this concept, we came together and applied for funding to open a child care center. 

After securing our grant, we quickly learned through conversations with providers that the number of child care centers was not the issue; there just weren’t enough employees. Child care is one of the most underpaid careers in Cerro Gordo County. People could be working just about anywhere else, with less stress and more money.

Our North Central Iowa team set a new goal: Increase the child care workforce by paying them what they deserve through a wage supplement program. That way, we could make child care more appealing to potential employees. In addition, we could capitalize on the state providing employees with free care for their own children and enacting a state income tax exemption, helping parents and women keep more money in their paychecks. 

Here is how we approached the work:

  • Involve business early. The business community also suffers from the child care deficit, which costs Iowa’s economy $935 million each year. With the Chamber of Commerce as a leader of the team, we invited the large businesses affected by lack of child care to join our coalition. Their participation from the beginning was critical in co-creating the wage supplement program and continues to be critical as we seek additional donations. 
  • Be willing to pivot: We thought we knew the answer, but as we learned more about what was truly needed, we changed course. Partnerships require flexibility and a willingness to explore together, and that is the foundation of our two organizations’ work together.
  • Gather partners who are in it for the right reasons. Iowans show up for each other, with the belief that “if it’s important to you, it’s important to us.” Our partners include the school district, businesses, child care referral programs, and the local community college. We knew if we could make headway on this problem, it would improve the economic well-being of the whole community: Children would receive better care, child care workers would have more economic security, parents would be able to pursue work and education, and businesses would have more available employees in the community.
  • Meet in person. Even though our coalition is strong, has experience working together, and is built on trust, regularly meeting in person brought it all together. We developed the wage supplement program idea at an in-person convening in 2023 — we spent time together, batted around ideas, came up with this program, unified around it, and went to work.
  • Secure political support. The Governor’s Child Care Task Force was established in 2021 to address the state’s child care crisis and support the state’s continued economic recovery. So we knew we had a friend in Governor Kim Reynolds. And we knew we had to speak through the lens of economics to garner the most support and attention. Economic development corps, chambers, and businesses were among the first partners to join the collaborative since they understood the value of child care to their industry.
  • Build momentum. The team worked hard to build public momentum for the fund. The Iowa Women’s Foundation, now administering the Governor’s Child Care Task Force initiatives, paved the way for state grant opportunities that have since bolstered our local efforts. In fall 2023, a state wage supplement grant allowed us to secure business donations by a target date, with a guaranteed pledged government match. We held a breakfast with businesses across the county to secure local investments, and the commitments grew from there. Once we had significant investments from businesses, we applied for the state’s match program and received a 2:1 match.

Through these steps and within two months, we grew de Beaumont’s $100,000 investment into a nearly $1 million wage supplement fund for child care providers. Funding has been secured through three-year pledges from local businesses.

Although this one program will not fix the broken child care system, we continue to secure additional funding commitments from businesses and pursue legislative and appropriations solutions. Most recently, we worked with the largest area school district to encourage students interested in the child care profession to get certified while in high school to expand the workforce.

We are eager to prove that, if we increase wages and offer good benefits, people will enter the child care workforce, the crisis will ease, and we can meet our region’s needs.

Kelli Gerdes is the Population Health Manager at the Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health, and Colleen Frein is President and CEO of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce.

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