Reprinted with permission from the Vincennes Sun-Commercial newspaper

May 24, 2022

Knox County is joining six other counties in Southwest Indiana in an effort to better understand possible gaps in the availability of childcare within the region.

Chris Pfaff, CEO of Knox County Indiana Economic Development, says though the current information is anecdotal, he has heard from more than one local business that childcare availability is often an issue for employees.

“I would describe it similar to how we decided to get into studying housing — we think there’s an issue, but we don’t have any data yet to show what it means,” said Pfaff.

The issue, especially since the onset of the pandemic, has arisen often enough that some companies have begun to consider solving the problem themselves to decrease childcare-related absenteeism among employees.

“When I begin to hear those comments from more than one company, I think it means there’s an issue and we should check into it,” Pfaff said.

Until very recently, he envisioned studying potential issues in the local supply and demand of childcare “further down the road,” but when Pfaff learned other nearby counties were collaborating in an effort to study the same issue, it made sense to join them.

“I thought if we were going to do this in the next six months or so anyway, it makes sense to do it now, regionally.

“There is efficiency in numbers, and it would have been more expensive to do it alone versus working with SIG,” he explained.

The Southern Indiana Gateway (SIG) region is comprised of Crawford, Dubois, Orange, Perry, Pike and Spencer counties, and earned the designation of a 21st Century Talent Region in 2021, a state initiative that encourages regions to build and implement a plan to increase educational attainment, raise household income and grow its population.

Pfaff said, recognizing the need for more data on childcare availability, Knox County asked to partner with the region.

The group, which includes each county’s local economic development organization and chamber of commerce, says it wants to better understand the regional childcare landscape, particularly in terms of meeting the needs of working parents.

Already, the region has partnered with Transform Consulting Group in an effort to collect accurate and up-to-date information on the number and types of childcare seats available within each county, specifically focusing on licensed daycares.

Lack of access to childcare is being recognized as a critical issue impacting workforce participation and attraction of new talent, especially in rural communities, which are often underserved in terms of options for licensed care centers.

That lack of access comes with a hefty price tag.

According to a report published by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute in 2018, Indiana lost nearly $1.1 billion in annual economic activity due to childcare-related absenteeism and employee turnover.

“From an economic development perspective, it is critical to understand supply in terms of how many seats actually meet the needs of working parents,” said Erin Emerson, Perry County Development Corporation’s executive director. “Lack of access to childcare is negatively impacting the daily lives and decisions of residents in our region and the productivity and bottom lines of local businesses as well as severely limiting our regional growth potential.”

But the cost of available childcare itself can negatively impact a parent’s bottom line, leaving them to make difficult decisions.

Pfaff says in addition to the number of seats available for children in the county, access to affordable childcare is also something likely to be investigated in the coming months.

Given current fuel prices, and general inflation, many working parents are being financially squeezed.

“If you add up all those itemized costs for staying at home with your children, versus going to work, and you see you’re working at a financial deficit — that’s the kind of stuff we need to understand,” Pfaff said.

Part of what he hopes to see in the data is a general sense of the hourly wage threshold an employee must earn to make paying for childcare a viable option.

“There’s got to be a tipping point when it doesn’t make fiscal sense to work unless you can find a better paying job, so affordability of childcare is part of the equation,” Pfaff said.

With the project already officially underway, the partnering members and their appointed task forces will spend the next two months focusing on gathering data and collecting survey results from local daycare centers.

Locally, Pfaff says since Knox County was the last to join an effort that was already underway, he will be looking to assemble a task force to help with the collection and refinement of local data and a path forward.

“Our first steps locally are getting organized, conducting surveys and refining data,” he said.

The end goal, Pfaff added, is to begin brainstorming solutions once the depth of the problem is more clearly understood.

“We recognize this is a problem, and it’s complicated,” Pfaff said. “I don’t think we’ll come up with easy solutions, but I hope people recognize we want to make progress on this.”

The final report is slated to be published in July.