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Indiana expanding shared-cost child care program

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024   

By Victoria Lim for WorkingNation.
Broadcast version by Joe Ulery for Indiana News Service reporting for the WorkingNation-Public News Service Collaboration

A new program in Northeast Indiana is trying to ease the burden of childcare. It’s not just an issue for Noble County’s 47,000 rural residents. As WorkingNation has previously reported, the effect from the pandemic lingers, especially for women. More than 100,000 Americans miss work because of childcare problems, and the childcare sector itself has a workforce shortage.

Noble County has just launched the Tri-Share Program. Modeled after an initiative in Michigan, it’s aimed at reducing parents’ out-of-pocket childcare costs.

“A large part of our employment base is manufacturing,” says Jenna Anderson, Thrive by 5 Early Childhood Coalition coordinator. “Our childcare costs are lower than a lot of areas across the country, but it is still a struggle for many of our residents to afford the costs.

“And those costs that parents are paying often don’t cover the true cost to the childcare for providing the care. One of the local programs was losing $13 per day per child, and another has said their costs only cover 80% of their expenses. That’s not sustainable.”

The Tri-Share Program is a quick, short-term solution to address affordability. As the name suggests, it engages three parties – the parents, their employers, and the government, in this case, Noble County. Anderson reached out to the Noble County Commissioners, who provided seed funding of $50,000. Then, she connected with other stakeholders.

Supporting Employee Childcare Needs

Nate Lowe was convinced. Just about a year into his role as the superintendent for the West Noble School Corporation, he sees how challenging it is to fill critical roles like assistants who can earn up to $16 an hour working with applied skills or functioning skills students. Openings can barely attract one or two applicants.

“What [employees] are telling me is that [the Tri-Share Program] helps them to be here,” Lowe says. “If you’re at a licensed childcare program with multiple people and one of them is sick, you can still drop your child off.

“If you just have friends or family watching your child and they’re sick, then you have to stay home. The immediate effect is our employees are here more and I think the background effect is they’re happier to be here because they know we’re helping them financially in this way. It’s a little more money in their pockets and certainly every little bit helps, and they can be on the clock on more often.”

Lowe heard about the Tri-Share Program from an instructional aide who works at one of his high schools, Alicia Squire. She experienced the very scenario Lowe described.

“My babysitter was my husband’s uncle. He decided he needed to get a regular job because the economy is bad and they weren’t making it. I called a local daycare…and started there within a couple weeks. It was really expensive. I was paying the uncle $50 a week, and daycare is $120 a week.

“I don’t make a lot of money and my husband had a big job change…and took a huge pay cut,” Squire explains. “That was pretty rough. So, $120 a week was pretty hard. It wasn’t even worth it to work at that point.”

The daycare mentioned the program to Squire – who mentioned it to Lowe. He lobbied his school board which agreed to designate $5,000 of this school year’s budget to help their employees. He says while this can help individual employees, it ultimately helps to serve the broader student population.

“This is serving our kids well,” Lowe says. “We are fully staffed, where sometimes it’s one assistant-to-three students, or one-to-two. Some students need one-on-one attention, and if that person is not at work [because of childcare issues], we’re not serving kids like we’re supposed to.”

Squire says splitting the cost of childcare with her employer and the county enables her to have enough money for her kids’ – ages four and six – swim lessons, school lunches, and cheerleading.

“It puts more food in the house, more gas in the car because the cost of gas has gone up,” she says. “Thank God for Tri-Share. I would’ve had to stay home, which is not a bad idea, but I just love what I do.”

Possible Program Expansion

“Employers are truly beginning to understand that a lack of childcare is affecting their hiring needs,” Anderson says. “I am currently working with an employer who is developing childcare within their business because they lost two employees to a lack of childcare and were unable to hire two replacements for them also due to lack of childcare. While the Tri-Share Program right now isn’t addressing the larger issue of capacity, it can help employers retain staff by contributing to their childcare costs, and perhaps recruit employees from other places that might not be offering support through the Tri-Share Program.”

There’s an income limit families must meet or fall below to qualify. So far, four families are part of the Tri-Share Program. Since county funds are used, the program is currently limited to families who live in Noble County. But because the county is relatively small and has employees who qualify based on income and live outside of Noble County, Anderson says she is working closely with the Northeast Indiana Early Childhood Coalition to expand the program to all of Northeast Indiana.

“This is a big burden for families, especially single parents who don’t have the option to not work. However, many families, in order to be stable in this economy, need to be a two-parent working household,” says Anderson.

“Still, the costs of childcare place a big burden on them, financially. The community’s wellbeing is at stake, as well. We already have employers who cannot fill open jobs, and parents who cannot get into the workforce – even though they want to – because they can’t find childcare at all, let alone quality and affordable childcare,” she says. “I think the fact that we are supporting any families is a success. It’s certainly considered a success to those families.”

Victoria Lim wrote this article for WorkingNation.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

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