By Carolyn Eslick / For The Herald
A local Snohomish County child care provider recently told me, “I run the only licensed child care facility in our community. The other closed in mid-August. We have 57 children, and the waiting list keeps growing. Too many families have nowhere to take their children; especially infants.”
If Washington state was facing a child care problem before the pandemic, the ongoing health and economic impacts of covid-19 have made the situation even more dire; especially for infant and toddler care.
Although the child care industry has been strained for several years, the pandemic increased the gap between the number of child care centers opening and those closing. As the number of licensed child care facilities continues to decrease statewide, new facilities are simply not opening frequently enough to change the downward spiral.
As this quiet crisis continues to unfold across Washington state, rural regions are particularly vulnerable. More than 49 percent of Skagit County and 39 percent of Snohomish County, the largest portion of the district that I represent, are designated as “child care deserts.” These are areas where demand for licensed child care programs greatly exceeds availability. This lack of reliable, affordable child care has devastating short- and long-term economic consequences, including lost wages, retirement savings, and opportunities for career advancement.
According to the Washington Child Care Collaborative Task Force (C3TF) — created by the Legislature in 2018 under House Bill 2367 to develop policy recommendations to improve child care access and affordability — inadequate access to affordable, quality child care translates to annual losses of $14.7 billion in personal income and $56.8 billion in business profits. These losses also keep more than 133,000 workers out of the state’s labor force.
C3TF’s most recent report urged “policy makers to keep child care top-of-mind when investing to strengthen our economy.” I agree. With an eye on economic recovery and re-employment, lawmakers need to focus on solutions that help the industry grow and thrive. While there’s much debate on how to do that, including policy changes and reforms for the industry, one of the most obvious answers is helping with the costs of expanding existing child care programs and the opening of new ones.
Child care centers are also businesses; typically run by women and often minority-owned. Small business loans and federal and state grants can help defray the costs of expanding or starting new child care programs. Supporting the initial outlay of funding not only encourages growth of the industry, but also supports female entrepreneurs and minorities, and has a big impact on communities.
In 2021, I sponsored an amendment to the Fair Start for Kids Act (Senate Bill 5237) that would have distributed start-up grants for the program costs of new providers specifically in child care deserts. The goal was to increase options not only in cities and suburbs but also in rural counties, like Snohomish and Skagit, and many others in desperate need of child care services. Although my amendment was approved, sadly, no funding was appropriated for it.
There is, however, good news in that House Bill 1370 was approved this year. The bill increases the individual award amounts for the grants and loans coming from the existing Early Learning Capital Grant program, administered by the Washington state Department of Commerce. Starting Oct. 1, the Department of Commerce began accepting applications from eligible organizations to construct new child care centers, and/or plan, renovate, and purchase existing facilities. With $40 million provided over the next biennium, this program could go a long way in helping new and existing licensed child care providers.
Other financial advice and information on federal and state business loans can be found on the Small Business Guidance website.
For the Snohomish County child care provider I talked to, with the help of a couple small business loans, subsidies from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), and a boost from the Paycheck Protection Program, she was able to open three new child care programs; including one specializing in infants to three-year-old children, and another for teenage mothers at the local alternative high school.
We need to repeat that success story across the state. Supporting the efforts of small business owner child care providers, by funding expansion or start-up costs, is just one of the many steps forward to making affordable, high quality child care available to all Washington families.
State Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, represents the 39th Legislative District, and serves on the House Children, Youth and Families Committee.
Correction: The commentary has been edited to reflect that Rep. Eslick’s proposed amendment to the Fair Start for Kids Act was approved by lawmakers, although funding was not appropriated.