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Child care in rural Utah is already feeling the sting of federal funding cuts

Dacie Derbidge reads a book to two of her students at Little Leapers Child Care Center in Beaver County. Her two programs in Beaver and Milford were receiving federal dollars but that funding is coming to an end. As a result, Derbidge is already feeling the impact.
Ed Surg via Dacie Derbidge
Dacie Derbidge reads a book to two of her students at Little Leapers Child Care Center in Beaver County. Her two programs in Beaver and Milford were receiving federal dollars but that funding is coming to an end. As a result, Derbidge is already feeling the impact.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dacie Derbidge, the director of Little Leapers Child Care Center in Beaver County, said it wiped her business out. Students quit coming and she had to furlough workers.

“I was working more than double time in order to make ends meet for my programs,” she said.

Things started to turn around when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act. Utah got nearly $600 million for the child care sector. And through ARPA-funded Child Care Stabilization Grants, Derbidge said she was given around $25,000 a month – $20,000 for her Beaver location and roughly $5,000 for the Milford location. With that money, she said she was able to bring employees back, pay them higher wages and reduce child care costs for families struggling financially.

But now Derbidge is at risk of losing her Milford care center – the only licensed child care facility available to everyone in the town – because that funding is going away. As of Oct. 1, the amount of federal money Derbidge receives from Utah’s Office of Child Care will decrease by 75%. She will receive no money starting in June 2024, if money doesn’t run out before then.

“Now that [the grants] are gone, we have families panicking because we no longer will be able to give them a large discount on their bill,” Derbidge said. “So we're going to go back to skimming by. And in an economy that is already struggling in rural Utah, it is really hard for our families to not have that child care.”

Even though Derbidge’s centers operate on a sliding scale, some parents are still unable to pay the monthly cost. The grants covered part of the child care co-pay for the family. For example, if a family with an infant could only pay $500 of the $1,000 bill, the grants covered the other half. That assistance goes away with the loss of funding.

She’s already starting to feel the impacts on the families. Derbidge said she’s lost some students and others have started attending part-time instead of full-time because parents can’t afford to pay. In some cases, the parents have left the workforce entirely to take care of their kids because an entire paycheck goes to child care costs.

For a rural county like Beaver, Derbidge said unaffordable child care has a big domino effect.

“What is going to happen in our community if we no longer have child care? Employers will no longer have employees. The whole economy is going to crash if we do not support our child care,” she said.

Little Leapers Child Care Centers are considered “high quality” programs, meaning they meet a certain set of standards, including teacher-to-child ratios below the state average. The grants helped pay teachers to keep ratios low, but with funding going away, Derbidge said it’s “hitting the budget super hard in order to stay high quality.”

Derbidge said her programs are going to have to increase the amount of kids assigned to each teacher. That isn’t just a drawback for kids, either.

“Our teachers are going to get overworked and they're going to be tired and exhausted, and then we're going to lose our staffing,” she said.

Derbidge said she’s already lost two teachers in two weeks due to burnout. And in a place like Beaver County, it’s “very very hard” to find replacements. Even if she could, Derbidge said she couldn’t afford to pay them what they’re worth. With federal dollars, she was able to pay her teachers at least $15 an hour. To keep wages the same, she has had to cut hours, deny raises and not hire additional staff.

“We're not bringing new people in. And that's going to put a strain on everybody else. And then in turn, that puts a strain on my children because they don't have the teacher ratio that they deserve to have,” she said.

Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, considers the state’s child care situation a market failure.

“Meaning you can't charge enough to make a good living because parents can't afford that. And so there's this space where if there's not an intervention by public policy, it's just not going to work unless someone picks it up. Public policy is a key thing,” she said.

While some companies offer child care for employees, Madsen said there aren't “big, bold movements” happening on the state level to tackle the problem.

Derbidge said the best way the state could support child care workers and programs is through more funding. She said the federal money toward child care made those who work in the sector feel seen and recognized as an important part of the economy and communities. But with funding fading, it leaves Derbidge with one question.

“Now what are we supposed to do?”

Are all moms in Utah stay-at-home moms? We’re breaking down Beehive State stereotypes in the latest season of State Street. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to hear the answer when the new episode drops Oct. 3.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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