As the unemployment rate rose in Iowa last month, many wondered what it would take to get our state’s economy moving and more people back to work. If you think the only two options are to raise wages or cut unemployment benefits, it is time to think outside the box. There is another answer that we should all agree on: improving access to childcare that the Iower can afford.
We know businesses need workers to get Iowa’s economy going again. So why are so many formerly employed Iowans still sitting on the sidelines? As the pandemic has brutally made clear, working parents – especially mothers – need childcare to keep a job. For too long, Iowa and the US as a whole have viewed childcare issues as a family concern. But COVID-19 has made it inevitable: these challenges are economic, and finding solutions requires the involvement of all sectors.
This is why it is so important that Governor Kim Reynolds set up a task force to examine our state’s childcare challenges. I am proud to be a member of this working group and I share the governor’s commitment to finding innovative, creative and long-term solutions. Because if there has ever been a time for big, bold thinking, it is now.
The Iowa Women’s Foundation, of which I am President and CEO, has worked in 41 communities across the state to understand what is at stake in caring for the youngest residents of our state. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how the public and private sectors can work together to get the job done.
Above all, we saw how people who get involved on site can provide impetus for systemic solutions. I encourage everyone who cares about our workforce, our economy, and the Iowa children to get involved. Contact your lawmakers and the governor’s office to provide your support for action to resolve our childcare crisis. Join a Building Child Care Solutions task force near you.
But no matter what you do, understand that this is a problem that affects us all – whether we have children or not.
The fact of the matter is that pre-COVID childcare options in Iowa were a tattered patch with every second child without quality, affordable care. Even then, this unequal supply and demand costs everyone. According to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, our state economy was losing an estimated $ 935 million a year to childcare problems even before the pandemic broke out. Now, when you add the widespread, permanent closings from the pandemic, you have a real crisis in your hand – the kind that keeps people from getting back to work.
Childcare challenges in Iowa are not an urban or rural issue. They are a nationwide problem. Fortunately, the action steps to solving these challenges are pretty clear. We need to improve childcare staff through higher wages and benefits. We need to increase and maintain corporate investment in childcare through public-private partnerships and create a multi-pronged approach to support this through tax credits. Finally, to ensure that we reach families in need of help most, we need to raise the income limits for childcare assistance from 145% each year to 185% of poverty in increments of 5%.
Many states are taking bold steps for exactly these kinds of solutions, and are spending a variety of federal funds on COVID relief. Iowa could be one of those national role models. In fact, just last month, Governor Reynolds invested some of our state’s federal money in helping childcare workers. This should be the beginning of more.
Neither Iowa nor our nation has seen a moment like this when access to childcare is so clearly a linchpin of economic recovery. So if the COVID crisis can have a silver lining, then it is the clarity and urgency to make meaningful, lasting changes. It’s up to us to seize this opportunity and get Iowa back to work.
Dawn Oliver Wiand is President and CEO of the Iowa Women’s Foundation.