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Lisa Hayworth, director of the Randolph Partnership for Children, left, and Kristy Umfleet, director of early care and education.    Larry Penkava/Randolph Hub

County prosperity could mean child care crisis

ASHEBORO — Randolph County is facing a child care crisis and the problem stands to get worse unless community-wide solutions are found.


That’s the message of the Randolph Partnership for Children, which held a community briefing on May 22 at Pinewood Country Club. There were 77 people in attendance from all sectors, including business, government, education and health.


Making the presentation were the Partnership’s Lisa Hayworth, executive director, and Kristy Umfleet, director of early care and education. Also speaking were Tracy Harrell, owner/director of the Randleman Enrichment Center, and Preston Roseboro, regional impact manager of the Piedmont Triad Prosperity Zone.


During an interview last week at the Partnership office on Sunset Avenue in Asheboro, Hayworth and Umfleet laid out the child care problem in Randolph County. 


There are 9,406 children in the age range of birth to 5 years old. Of those, 2,133 are served in the formal child care system, or just 36 percent of the total of the age group.


In Randolph County, Hayworth said, there are 51 child care programs, including half-day and home care, with 409 early childhood professionals. 


By definition, the county is considered a child care desert, in which a family doesn’t have access to a program within five miles or there aren’t enough spaces for all the children who need care.


“The transportation challenge further complicates things,” said Hayworth, explaining that rural areas are most affected.


She went on to address the value of quality child care: “The first five years are foundational for a children’s ability to be successful in school, their ability to grow and thrive.”


Umfleet expanded on that, saying, “Ninety percent of the brain is developed by age 5. We need to make sure all their needs are met and that they have food and housing security, social and emotional skills, academic skills and workforce skills” as they progress through school. “It’s all so closely connected to the community’s good.”


Umfleet paraphrased an African saying, “If children are well, the community is well and success is likely. The future of the community is going to be great. 


“We can spend money on children early on or spend money later on,” she said, when their lives may take the wrong turns.


Hayworth quoted the Heckman Equation, developed by James Heckman, an American economist and Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago. The Heckman Equation states that there is a 13 percent return on investment for early childhood programs. 


Making sure all children are provided with quality care doesn’t just impact the families, Hayworth said. Employers of working parents benefit when the parents don’t have to stay home with their children. 


Being defined as a child care desert is even more concerning given the expected growth in the county’s population with the coming of Toyota Battery, Wolfspeed Semiconductor and other industries.


“With growth coming, and we’re already not serving two-thirds of the children, it’s going to grow as a problem,” Hayworth said. “It’s an economic development issue.”


Child care providers are put in an untenable position, not able to pay their staff more because the children’s families can’t afford to pay higher tuition. And it stands to get worse.


According to Hayworth, the federal government provided stabilization grants during the COVID-19 pandemic to help keep child care centers afloat. But those grants will end on June 30.


“County data shows how disruptive that will be,” Hayworth said. “In Randolph County from 2021 to the present, $8,862,988 came in. When the grants end, 23 programs will be impacted.”


Early childhood workers traditionally are at the lower end of the payscale, according to figures Hayworth quoted. The state average is $14 per hour, which includes the stabilization grants. Randolph County pay ranges from $8 to $21 per hour, with stabilization.


That compares with a study by the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that says a single person with a single child in Randolph County requires a living wage of $36.68. Hayworth called that a penalty for working with younger children, with a poverty rate of 17.6 percent for early educators in North Carolina.


“We fear that (the ending of the stabilization grants) is coming at the worst possible time,” Hayworth said. “We welcome new folks with children coming here for opportunities. But if they can’t find affordable care, they may move to another community.”


If that isn’t enough, Randolph County seems to have been penalized for being rural, compared to surrounding counties receiving child care subsidies. Hayworth said a 2-year-old in a 5-star center would qualify that center for a subsidy of $793 in Randolph County. However, a Davidson County center would get $897, a Guilford center qualified for $1,192 and a Chatham center would receive $1,430.


“That’s an added layer of plight for Randolph County families,” she said.


So, what’s the solution to the child care problem in Randolph County?


“We need a lot of entities coming together, public and private,” Hayworth said. “We want everyone to understand it’s a systemic issue. We’re exploring innovative ideas from across the state, to adopt and adapt strategies.”


Umfleet said a program in Michigan called Tri-Share is a partnership involving families, the state and employers. To help alleviate the high cost of child care, each entity pays one-third of the cost. Umfleet said a similar program is getting started in North Carolina but Randolph County is not included in the first phase.


Yadkin County, Umfleet said, is looking at what’s called Flex Plex, in which land is donated and money from the community is used to build a facility to house classrooms to be shared by licensed child care programs. By absorbing the startup expenses, the provider costs are less, leading to lower costs to families.


One business is helping employees who lose their child care facility by contracting with another program for temporary help until the family can find another child care facility. The problem here, Umfleet said, is that “in Randolph County, there’s not enough child care for those who need it.


“We need all of the above (solutions) and more,” Umfleet said. “We’ve got to get people talking, sharing ideas and solutions.”

Hayworth said the May 22 meeting allowed discussion among those present. “The collective message was to think outside the box for different solutions.”


“We know there are solutions that are Randolph-specific,” Umfleet added. “We want to get input from the community and look for solutions that will work here.”


That could mean involving the faith community, which may mean opening up unused space for a child care program to come in. Some churches already provide daycares.


Another area of concern is recruiting and keeping teachers in child care. “We want to keep them but it’s hard for them to support themselves,” Umfleet said. “We want them to be in the classroom but we must revitalize the career field and eliminate barriers of getting into the classroom.”


That could mean a Randolph County lab school to prepare teachers at little to no cost to them. There could even be a look at a special tax to subsidize child care centers or families.


But it must involve the community at large, “We’ll share information with groups of all sizes all over the county,” Hayworth said.