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Chloe Learey: Without childcare, the economy clearly suffers

This comment is from Chloe Learey, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and a member of the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council.

In 2012, the Local Child Care Planning Council of Humboldt County, California uploaded its video “A Day Without Child Care” to YouTube. Almost 10 years later, the points raised are even more noticeable, especially aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The premise is fundamental: people without childcare cannot work, which has far-reaching consequences with varying degrees of severity.

Childcare has a unique position in the economic equation because it enables people to work in other sectors. A restaurant without enough staff does not necessarily have an impact on health care. However, if there are not enough people providing childcare, it affects everyone.

Childcare has never been so easy to find. But the recent labor shortage has only made the problem worse, creating challenges for parents who are feeling pressures to go back to the office.

Every sector, including childcare, is currently struggling to hire new staff. Various factors contribute to this, and at least one result is clear: the supply of childcare places is decreasing.

There’s no shortage of space – we’ve closed two of our six classrooms at the Early Learning Center in Winston Prouty and need to hire more people to keep the other four open this fall. For a while we didn’t even get applicants! Our waiting list has grown to over 70 families, 75% of which require infant / toddler care (birth up to the age of 3 years).

Clearly, this has an impact on people entering and re-entering employment.

There has been a lot of discussion about how big the impact the pandemic has been on women’s ability to work. When the world collapsed in March 2020 and the children came home from childcare and school, childcare was largely split between the sexes and women took on much of the care responsibilities.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said more than 4 million women left the labor force between February and April 2020; About half had not returned by May 2021. In a recent CNBC interview, Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association, said the industry lost 350,000 employees, or about a third of its workforce, during the pandemic.

Even if home work was possible for some of these caregivers, the reconciliation of work with family responsibilities was not viable or sustainable, and many women left working life altogether. If they have young children, they may not be able to return. And since women make up the majority of the workforce in childcare, we are likely to continue struggling with attitudes, especially since it is a low-wage and stressful field. And we can no longer pay our employees without increasing tuition fees, which creates a vicious circle.

During the pandemic, government grants to offset operating costs and personal protective equipment have been helpful, but funds are needed that are intended directly to increase employee pay. Government support for both parents and those who care for their children is the only solution. The recent child discount is a good start to transform the childcare system.

By the time we cover the financial pieces of the childcare puzzle, our efforts for economic development will be severely hampered. Understanding that childcare is fundamental to our economy – like housing, roads, broadband and other infrastructures – is vital. Increased investment is needed to raise wages, lower tuition fees for families, and support the education and professional development of those employed in the field.

We are facing a hose of financing for the infrastructure that already feels like a lot of money is flowing into our state. And it will likely get a lot bigger. If we are to make full use of these resources, we need cross-industry discussion and creative thinking among the many entities that are required to solve the puzzle.

How do we bring together early childhood professionals with economic development experts at state and local level? Let’s start by recognizing childcare as an infrastructure. Then we can identify, network, and convene the decision makers who oversee funding across departments and agencies. Our future depends on it.

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