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Tennessee families are struggling to afford child care

In Tennessee, 48% of all communities are in child care deserts, according to Tennesseans for Quality Early Education.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Precious Long beams with pride when she talks about her 4-year-old daughter.

"Oh, she's so sassy!" Long said. "She's literally like, spits me back at me sometimes."

Credit: Precious Long
Precious Long (left) poses with her daughter.

The single, working mother attends school full-time in her off hours and lives at The Restoration House in Knoxville.

Long was forced to quit her job after giving birth while she desperately searched for child care.

"Getting off that waitlist, getting approved and then finding a facility that I trusted and that actually had the space to take my little girl, that took some months," Long said.

Now she pays nearly $200 per week for preschool.

"I've just kind of run into that cycle where it's like I'm just kind of working to pay for child care," Long said.

Unaffordable child care is a statewide issue

In Tennessee, the average annual cost of center-based child care is more than $11,000 for infants and $10,000 for toddlers.

In Knox County, the average family will pay 30% of their income toward child care for two children under 5 years old. 

A recent study by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) finds Tennessee parents, businesses and taxpayers lost more than $2.6 billion last year because of insufficient child care.

In Knox County alone, the economic impact is $108 million per year.

Credit: WBIR
Tennessee parents, businesses and taxpayers lost more than $2.6 billion last year because of insufficient child care. Knox Co. lost $108 million.

RELATED ARTICLE: 'There's nothing here' | Parents struggling with little or no options in child care deserts

"We've heard more than ever before from businesses across the state that they recognize the impact that inadequate child care is having on their ability to grow their businesses, to have a stable workforce and to have a sufficient workforce," TQEE CEO Blair Taylor said.

Blair applauded a move last summer by the TN Department of Human Services to increase child care reimbursement rates by 20% but said more needs to be done.

Many parents say their biggest problem is finding quality and affordable child care when they need it.

More than 80% of working parents surveyed say they recently quit, were fired or turned down a job offer or promotion because of child care issues. 1 in 5 stopped looking for employment altogether.

Credit: WBIR
80% of working parents surveyed say they recently quit, were fired or turned down a job offer/promotion because of childcare.

What is happening in Knox County?

United Way of Greater Knoxville says child care is unaffordable for most families in the area.

"Those numbers start to look really scary when we get into low-income thresholds and single-parent households," Director of Early Care and Education Systems Ellie Kittrell said.

The non-profit is pushing for more licensed child care facilities with a goal to create more than 300 high-quality child care spots by 2025.

Kittrell is also working on an online child care finder website and a substitute pool for child care providers to help stabilize the workforce.

Kittrell's agency has invited state and local leaders to discuss other solutions at a symposium later this month.

"For those kiddos that don't have access to high-quality learning environments before kindergarten, on average, they start out at least a year to half a year behind their peers," Kittrell said.

The Restoration House Executive Director Daniel Watson is on a mission to change the trajectory.

Watson's team is raising $2 million to open an early education center and after-school program this fall in an area of West Knoxville considered a child care desert. 

Olive Tree Early Learning Academy will offer 56 spots for children 6 weeks through 5 years old.

Half will go to families living at The Restoration House. The rest will be available to the community.

"If we really want to move the needle for our community, the most strategic investment we can make is in early education," Watson said.

Long's daughter will be among the first enrolled at Olive Tree Early Learning Academy. She is grateful for an affordable option.

"It's really honestly going to help a lot just take that burden off as a mother," Long said.

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