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WKU Public Radio is part of a new regional journalism collaborative known as the Ohio Valley ReSource. It's made up of public media stations across Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. The collaborative will focus on the changing economy in the region and its effect on jobs, healthcare and infrastructure. Each station taking part in the Ohio Valley ReSource is hiring a reporter to contribute to the effort. WKU Public Radio's reporter is Alana Watson, who will be based in the Bowling Green newsroom. The Ohio Valley ReSource is made possible by member stations and through a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.

Parents struggle for support in Ohio Valley child care ‘deserts’

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Stacy Bilodeau has wanted to go back to work for years, but she doesn’t have child care. The mother of two from Murray, Ky. is the only one available to look after her kids for long stretches of time because her husband is in the Coast Guard. She says she has little choice but to continue staying home.

“When you solo parent a lot, everyone’s like, ‘oh, go get a job,’ but I have nobody else to watch my children for me to go do an interview,” Bilodeau said.

Bilodeau used to work as a graphic designer, but since she had kids, she’s had trouble finding child care that would work with commonly available shift-work jobs like restaurants or coffee shops.

“What people don’t understand is that when you’re a solo parent or a single parent, those jobs are not eight-to-five jobs. Child care around here does not have extended care,” Bilodeau said.

Child care in the Ohio Valley

Bilodeau’s barrier to work is a familiar struggle to many in the Ohio Valley, where child care deserts are common.

A child care desert is any census tract that contains more than 50 children under age five where no child care providers are available, or where there are more than three-times as many children as licensed child care slots.

Child care deserts stretch across swaths of rural America, areas that include 50% of people in Kentucky, 39% of people in Ohio and 64% of people in West Virginia.

All three states offer some sort of state-funded assistance that pays for child care at licensed facilities if the family meets the state qualifications based on income and other factors.

But according to longtime Ohio anti-poverty advocate Jack Frech, child care subsidies aren’t used as much as they could be.

“I think it’s important to know that in Ohio, child care subsidies are actually an entitlement. In other words if you meet the income guidelines and you have a legitimate need for child care, you’re either working or in training. You get it,” Frech said. “The limiting factor came down to whether or not it was available.”

Frech worked as Athens County, Ohio’s welfare director for 33 years and is now senior executive in residence at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University.

He says state-funded child care programs are seldom utilized because of low availability of child care providers, largely due to rigorous regulations and low pay.

Ohio has a program through the Department of Job and Family Services that allows families to get a state-funded child care provider to come into their home, so parents can work, go to school or do other things that take them outside the home.

But in most of the state, providers only make Ohio’s minimum wage, which increased from $8.80 to $9.30 an hour at the beginning of this year.

In Athens County only 198 children were enrolled in the program as of 2021 despite 22% of the 65,000-person county living under the poverty line.

Despite the positive aspects, Frech says people either don’t know about the program or can’t take advantage of it.

“The in-home aid child care program has been around for decades. Basically, it’s one that the state of Ohio has barely even mentioned even though it’s been on the books,” Frech said. “One of the reasons the program has never really taken off is that they set the pay rate and statute at minimum wage. Because it paid so little it never went anywhere.”

In 2017, Frech worked with the Mayors’ Partnership for Progress, a group of leaders in Appalachian Ohio, and discovered communities across the region were experiencing similar problems.

Mayors across the area said child care centers were closing due to an inability to meet difficult state standards and a lack of providers due to low pay. Frech said payment rates for area daycare centers are always lower than other regions.

“The trouble is that if your folks are already operating on very small margins, and charging very little because everybody is so poor, and because people who are working are still poor, then your rates are low to begin with and this just kind of institutionalized that lower rate,” Frech said.

Frech said a third of southeast Ohio daycares have closed in the last decade, leaving many parents to cobble together informal child care or seek out unlicensed providers.

“A lot of these folks figured out that they could just do this outside of the system, do just as well, and not be part of the whole thing,” Frech said. “That just gives you some idea of how all of this time and energy spent on quality and standards and doing all this stuff has had the net effect of just driving more kids away from this, to just be totally unsupervised, unmanaged, no monitoring child care systems – the vast majority of them are. So it hasn’t really lifted the well-being of children as intended.”

A new pilot program

To try to get more children cared for by licensed providers, Frech helped create a pilot program that boosts the pay for in-home child care in six southeastern Ohio counties. The program is an extension of the original in-home program, but comes with an increased pay rate of $13 per hour. And it’s reserved for families who have children with disabilities and parents who work non-traditional hours.

Nicolette Anderson is the first, and currently only, in-home provider to take advantage of the pilot program, which launched in April 2021. She said she enjoyed caring for kids before taking part in the pilot, but the low pay was frustrating.

“Yes, the program exists, but there’s a reason why it’s not very popular. Because who wants to be paid minimum wage to watch six kids?” Anderson said.

Anderson said getting paid more has made the job more worthwhile and she’s glad she got more training as part of the program.

“I found out that they paid for the first aid and the CPR work, so I was getting more out of it than just an hourly check. The free training is really nice. There’s been lots of online training and workshops that I’ve been able to go to in-person for free,” Anderson said.

Anderson says the pilot program could be beneficial to a lot of families, especially kids with special needs who have a hard time finding day care. She says people can’t always raise a family on their own.

“It’s just not reasonable to have one person in charge of their needs, their own personal needs and the needs of five other human beings. It’s a lot of work. And then expect that person to not have funds to do anything.”

Supporters hope the pilot program will be expanded to include other under-served parts of the state and region.

Currently the program is set to expire after one year–that’s this April–or until funding is no longer available, whichever is sooner.

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