Comment: Investment in child care can put many back to work

Continued improvements to our child care system can free parents to work and aid in child development.

By Sue Krienen / For The Herald

As a business leader, I’ve come to understand how important child care is to our workforce.

When I was working at Shell Oil Products, many of our hard-working employees were (and still are) parents to young children. Every day, they have to navigate the extraordinary job of raising children, while also being a productive and present employee. Of course, the pandemic complicated both of those roles, so working parents — who are the backbone of our economy — have struggled.

As a grandma and active community volunteer, I have seen firsthand how the pandemic changed the way working parents in Washington need and use child care. Many parents lost their jobs and either no longer required child care or could not afford it. Some parents transitioned to working from home, and, although they no longer needed traditional child care, still needed some sort of assistance with their kids, who were now also at home. Other brave working parents were essential workers on the front lines and desperately needed traditional care for their children.

Child care providers struggled, too. They encountered important but burdensome, constantly evolving safety protocols that were costly and complicated their functionality. They lost a huge portion of their customer base, especially during the first months of the pandemic. While dealing with that significant loss, child care providers also had to figure out how to stay open and serve their communities. Needless to say, this past year has been extremely challenging for parents, childrenand child care providers.

The strain on the child care industry came at a time when the sector was already in crisis. A 2019 ReadyNation report found that the infant-and-toddler child care crisis costs our national economy $57 billion per year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. In Washington, this crisis could amount to a $1.6 billion hit to our economy every year. This year, the Washington state Legislature passed an omnibus early learning bill, called Fair Start for Kids Act, which makes historical investments to increase access to affordable child care.

We know what causes the infant-and-toddler child care crisis. Many working parents — especially those in lower-income households and communities — have long felt that child care is inaccessible and too expensive. They also cited feeling that a lack of child care has affected their productivity and presence at work. The pandemic has only exacerbated this massive financial hit on our economy, and the challenges for working parents in Washington and around the country.

Unsurprisingly, high-quality child care also has a positive impact on the children themselves. Research shows that children who experience high-quality child care can access improved academic and behavioral outcomes, as the foundational cognitive and social-emotional skills that a nurturing, supportive environment can impart pay dividends for years to come. These skills, in turn, help build the workforce of tomorrow, which starts by helping today’s infants and toddlers.

In March, as part of the American Rescue Plan, $15 billion additional dollars were allocated to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, and $24 billion for a child care stabilization fund was designated to help child care providers reopen and address some of the pandemic caused financial losses, If used effectively and efficiently, those funds can really support child care programs’ efforts to meet the needs of all children and working parents.

As I said, the next step is making sure those funds are used effectively, efficiently and creatively. Home-based child care providers — who have been some of our greatest heroes throughout the pandemic by staying open through the health crisis — need to receive stabilization grants. As more and more parents turn to smaller and personalized settings, states should use these investments to support developing networks of home-based care providers to assist in accessing and qualifying for CCDBG reimbursements. Such networks will also help states to include home-based providers in the same feedback and resource sharing loops that large centers can access.

Washington benefits from a rich, diverse and mixed delivery child care system that honors parental preferences, but in many areas of our state it still falls short. Child care choice should not be dictated by where someone lives or their ability to pay. Washington, and all states across our nation, must intentionally invest this pandemic relief money to support child care solutions that honor parental choice, and work toward increasing access, affordability and quality in all settings and in all communities.

Washington and the country are at a pivotal point. We have the opportunity to reimagine and revitalize systems that, in the past, have not served everyone’s needs to help children reach their full potential. There’s an opportunity to improve the lives of families, child care providers, and children in our state and in the rest of America. If we take the opportunity and truly improve our child care systems, we can put our kids on the pathway to become conscious, thoughtful and proactive members of society, which will contribute to the country for generations to come.

Sue Krienen is a retired executive at Shell Oil Products. She is a member of ReadyNation and lives in Burlington.

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