State Senator: Time to use state funds for child care crisis

Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 8:35 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The child care industry in South Dakota is still in a crisis, according to those in the field and one lawmaker in Pierre determined to fix it.

It will be a tough fix, said Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls), because, as he claims, Gov. Kristi Noem is opposed to using state funds for child care.

On Tuesday, she announced more federal funds to subsidize it. But first, a reminder of how things got so dire in the first place.

Families are having more difficulty finding places to take care of kids while parents are at their jobs, and some child care providers are having a hard time just staying open.

That’s because providers are struggling to find and keep staff members to watch and work with kids, and when this happens, providers are forced to turn kids away.

“The child care industry is in an absolute crisis right now,” said Stacy Jones, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Sioux Empire. “We can only take so many kids based on how many staff we can hire, and when we’re competing against other industries, that’s incredibly difficult.”

This, in turn leaves a shortage in the state’s workforce for other industries. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Boys and Girls Clubs have raised minimum wage for employees to $15 an hour about a year ago. But that’s only bound to keep heads above water, considering industries like fast food are paying even more.

“I know that one of the biggest challenges that families in South Dakota face today is access to childcare,” Noem said in Tuesday’s State of the State Address. “Families might have to go on a wait list for months. One parent may have to stop working for the time being.”

Noem then announced that her office will be releasing to child care providers nearly $40 million in federal grants. This, after holding “several meetings with providers so that these grants will target exactly what they need – from new technology to startup funds to quality initiatives.”

That $38 million is actually money left over from the $100 million in federal dollars that South Dakota received last year from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in 2021.

“We call them ‘Biden Bucks’ around here,” said Nesiba, a Democrat from Sioux Falls.

The state spent over $60 million of it last year, but turned off the valve once some lawmakers squabbled about where the money should go.

Nesiba said the rest of the federal funds are a “good start” to addressing the crisis, but not nearly enough.

”If you want to have affordable, high-quality helath care, the state has to subsidize it,” Nesiba said. “Almost every other state in the country does that.”

But South Dakota, does not. And child care relief is not expected to be something the state’s $423 million budget surplus will be allocated.

”The governor has made it very clear that she is not going to subsidize child care,” Nesiba said. “This is a fundamental disagreement between the governor and Democrats. Democrats believe we are going to need to invest in our future. We need to invest in our kids. We need to make sure that people are able to have a place where they can drop off their child, or children, to make sure their child is safe while they’re at work.”

Nesiba said he will introduce a bill that would provide state funds for child care in this session. It will likely be an appropriations bill that he said is part of “our ongoing government funding.”

“We are going to have a new leader in our Department of Social Services,” Nesiba said. “And if there was leadership in the DSS, and the governor changed her mind, it would be appropriate for (the funds) to be housed there, and be a part of the DSS budget.”

It will be an uphill battle to convince his fellow legislators — mostly Republicans — and Noem to pass a bill using state funds for child care.

“The governor’s perspective on freedom tends to be one of freedom from government,” Nesiba said. “I’m one who believes that government can actually create opportunities, can work with the private sector to create opportunities, and this is one where we need government assistance just like we do with public education.

“In a world where both moms and dads are working, we need subsidized child care as a workforce development issue. This economic development, this workforce development, this is good for the future of our kids.”

South Dakota is the only state in the nation that does not have an “early education council,” according to Nesiba. He said that needs to be a part of the conversation of gravitating toward more state help for child care.

Sioux Falls Thrive president Michelle Erpanbach is a child care activist who was talking to lawmakers in Pierre today. She said she ran into a lobbyist who sounded optimistic and excited about Noem’s announcement of the nearly $40 million in federal funds coming child care providers’ way.

Erpenbach did not match that enthusiasm. She feels like it has been her duty to remind them those are not state dollars, they’re not new funds, and so much more is needed. Erpenbach said 15 in-home child care providers in Sioux Falls closed within the last several months.

And it all comes back to the low wages of the caretakers, and therefore the difficulty in finding them.

”We need to professionalize that industry,” Erpenbach said. “Those folks are not just babysitters. We’re not just dropping them off somewhere. We are putting them into educational situations that really do prepare them for kindergarten, whether that situation is in a church basement, or large center, or in-home provider.”

Erpenbach said the $60 million in federal funds that was doled out to child care providers last year helped upgrade many facilities, and freed up the budgets for more and better staffing.

But Jones agreed places like the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Sioux Empire need so much more.

“Every kid deserves the best,” Jones said. ”They absolutely need the best care and the best people taking care of their kids. This is our future, and if we’re not nurturing them and taking care of them, that’s on all of us.”