As childcare availability wanes, Noem’s unemployment success claims don’t  tell the whole picture, officials say

Kayla Klein, Director at Early Learner South Dakota. Courtesy photo

LEAD — Gov. Kristi Noem’s budget address that announced $100 million for child care was somewhat misleading, and the low unemployment rate for working parents that she mentioned in her state of the state address did not tell the whole picture of childcare availability in South Dakota, officials say.

Kayla Klein, director of Early Learner South Dakota, said Thursday that there was much that the governor left unsaid in her claims, including where those hundreds of workers are going to find childcare for young children while they are working. Over the last 22 months, she said the state has lost many of its childcare centers due to providers’ inability to recruit a stable workforce, rising costs and limited budgets. In Rapid City, she said one of the largest childcare providers has a waiting list of 315 children, while a similar provider in Sioux Falls has a waiting list of more than 150 families. The Northern Hills communities are suffering from the same limited childcare options, and parents are often forced to choose between working and caring for their children, she said.

“Childcare businesses are operating on budgets limited by what parents can afford,” Early Learner South Dakota stated in a recent press release that expressed disappointment about the governor not mentioning childcare in her address on Tuesday. “This left many South Dakota families in a lurch. People want to work, but they also have family responsibilities. There is a shortage of childcare availability in South Dakota.”

The press release goes on to explain the primary problem with childcare availability is that as centers struggle to balance their budgets by charging lower rates that parents can afford, wages for childcare workers often suffer.

“But this is unacceptable for the essential work of providing care to young children,” according to the press release. “Higher pay can be found at fast food restaurants than working to provide childcare. South Dakota needs to prioritize our young children and support the childcare workforce to earn more than poverty-level wages. More support is needed in order to recruit a stable childcare workforce and pay them wages that reflect the essential work of caring for our young children. South Dakota’s economic success depends on having a stable childcare workforce.”

The $100 million that Noem pledged to direct toward assisting with childcare centers will be a start toward helping with that. But, Klein said her announcement was misleading to sound like those dollars are state allocations. In fact, she said the $100 million are federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, and were already earmarked for childcare. The real financial assistance for childcare needs to come in the form of directed funds for provider wages, in order to boost recruitment potential. Noem did not mention any of this kind of assistance in her budget address or state of the state address.

“Those were not new dollars,” Klein said of the $100 million. “We thank the governor for mentioning that in the budget address, because it is vital and we’re happy to see those federal funds being used. It’s not enough and we need more directed at workforce, because workforce is the number one issue we’re seeing in childcare. We don’t have enough workforce to fill the facilities we already have, let alone increasing the facilities we have in the state.

“The governor talked a lot about the freedoms we have in South Dakota, and that’s true,” Klein continued. “I think the citizens of South Dakota appreciate the freedoms they’ve been given. That’s also why parents have the freedom to make the best choices for their families. The majority of them are choosing to work. We should give them that freedom to work, but make sure they have reliable and safe childcare opportunities, which is not what is happening at the moment.”

Two of the ways Early Learner South Dakota has been able to help with childcare availability with limited funds is by increasing open communication between childcare advocates, state legislators, and state departments such as the Department of Social Services and the Department of Education. This resulted in officials at the Department of Social Services working to develop a voluntary list of unregistered childcare providers in the state. That list, Klein said, will help get those providers information about ways to become registered and available financial assistance programs.

In 2019, Klein said a study based on tax filings, conducted by an economic development committee showed that 60% of all providers in the state are unregistered or unregulated. Klein said there are a number of reasons providers choose to not register their businesses that are often home-based. Many just don’t want to take the extra step of registering, she said.

In addition to lack of childcare availability, Klein said the governor’s state of the state address about low unemployment numbers did not tell the whole picture in South Dakota. Noem did not mention the 64% non-participation rate in the workforce.

“We have an extremely high non-participation rate in the workforce,” she said. “People aren’t on unemployment, they’re just not participating in the workforce, and that’s why we have so many jobs.”

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