Early childhood care and education lay the foundation for child development and future success. The Birth to Five project, funded by the Wisconsin Department of Children & Families (DCF), explored family and provider experiences in Wisconsin around access to quality and affordability of early care and education. It also examined how early care and education influence other facets of life for children and families and the needs and priorities of early care and education in Wisconsin. The needs assessment explored quality, affordability, accessibility of care and education, and demands and challenges for the workforce in delivering comprehensive, equity-focused services to Wisconsin’s most vulnerable, underserved, and rural populations from five demographic – Native Americans, Hmong, Latinx, Black, and rural White.
The research team conducted 63 interviews (via zoom and phone) across twelve Wisconsin counties and nine tribal affiliations using convenient and snowball sampling. A diverse research team, sharing similar racial, ethnic, and language backgrounds as the participants and service providers engaged in deductive and inductive coding using narrative and thematic analysis techniques.
The collaborative analysis identified several common themes across demographic groups. Some emerged coding was similar to the DCF framework: accessibility, affordability, quality, and workforce, including the high cost of childcare, while other themes for parents encompassed the need for more accessible childcare hours fitting working parent’s schedules; increased pay, training, and professional development for providers; the value of school readiness and skill development for children; and the importance of trust, and safety as hallmarks of quality childcare.
The experiences within groups encompassed various criteria that are unique to racial minorities, such as provider’s demographic when finalizing childcare, the effects of race and socioeconomic status on childcare options, preference of the family care model over formal childcare providers, mismatch of needs and services delivery, and acknowledgment of racial and cultural values along with lack of diversity. Moreover, the state policies connected to economic disparities are more burdensome towards racial minorities, highlighting the urgency of restructuring the early care and education system according to the needs of low-income parents and families of color. The policies rarely account for the barriers caregivers and providers face in service delivery due to race.
Additionally, COVID-19 has affected family well-being and childcare service delivery directly and indirectly, which in turn has impacted early childhood development and education during the pandemic.
Key recommendations and policy implications consist of the need for flexibility in state and county eligibility criteria for vulnerable families who are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The accommodations should include extending the deadline for finding employment for currently unemployed parents beyond three months, increasing the maximum level of income for funding of childcare, and suspending the requirement for placing the non-custodial parent on child-support to receive aid for childcare. Family and provider mental health is also becoming a concern due to increased stress, anxiety, social isolation, lack of work, and being home with children because of COVID-19 impacts.