Apr 16, 2015

Child Care & Vermont's Economy

Ben Wilson is Associate Director of Prospect Research at Middlebury College and President of the Better Middlebury Partnership ("BMP"), a business group dedicated to making Middlebury a better place to live, work and play. The BMP is active in Middlebury’s economic development efforts, such as founding a Telecommuter/Mobile Professional Group, which is designed to better integrate into the community professionals who live and play in Middlebury, but whose work is focused elsewhere. In addition to the BMP,  Ben also serves on the boards of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Otter Creek Child Center. Prior to joining Middlebury College, Ben worked as a lawyer in Middlebury at Langrock Sperry & Wool, and in Boston at Foley Hoag LLP. Ben is the devoted father of two children, ages five and seven.

How Child Care Impacts Vermont's Economy

When discussing early childhood, commentators often highlight how quality early experiences improve children’s brain function and educational prospects. Another important, and often overlooked consideration is how quality, affordable child care affects Vermont’s economic development.

Vermont’s Aging Population

One of the largest challenges facing Vermont is its demographic makeup. Vermont is the second “oldest” state in the country with a median age of 42.3, and it also has the second lowest birth rate in the nation. Current trends suggest that our future workforce will ultimately be too small to maintain our economy and social services. Many commentators speak of these demographic challenges as a future problem, but we already face these issues. Declining school enrollments and the associated spiraling costs of education and property taxes are part and parcel of our demographic challenge.  

The uncomfortable truth is that doing nothing will insure that these demographic trends continue. If we cling to the status quo we will inevitably undermine the Vermont way of life that we cherish. We need to deliberately work to change Vermont’s future demographic mix—we need to attract and retain more young families.

Vermont’s Child Care Challenges

We cannot begin to seriously address Vermont’s demographic issues without addressing the state’s early childhood system. Vermont currently has a significant shortfall of quality, affordable child care opportunities. According to the Building Bright Futures Early Childhood Budget Report—FY2013, Vermont’s licensed child care providers only have capacity for 40% of the children who need care outside of the home. Addressing this shortfall is essential if we are going to meaningfully alter Vermont’s demographic trends.

I have seen firsthand what a critical issue child care is to young working families. In my economic development role, I have helped multiple families secure child care opportunities in the Middlebury area. This is a particularly critical issue for families who lack previous ties to Vermont. Without a pre-existing network of family and friends, these families are completely dependent upon existing child care programs, and not being able to find a program with availability for their children is a potential deal-breaker for their move to Vermont.

The Economic Opportunity

While we must urgently address the child care shortfall, the good news is that solving this issue also presents an economic development opportunity for Vermont.

This may seem counterintuitive, especially if you think about how many states’ economic development efforts revolve around giving companies huge tax breaks (Washington State just gave Boeing Corp. $8.7 billion in tax breaks—$3.2 billion more than Vermont’s entire 2014 state budget).

As a small state, Vermont has no hope of competing in this arena, and I would argue that Vermont shouldn’t want to enter a race to the bottom. Instead, we should be focusing on Vermont-scale economic development. This means attracting small businesses, entrepreneurs and telecommuters to the state.

It is important to realize that the Internet has completely changed the way that Vermont is able to compete. In the past, most people considering returning or relocating to the state had to weigh sacrificing career advancement against the benefits of Vermont’s rural lifestyle. However, broadband technology now allows professionals and businesses to advance their prospects while simultaneously enjoying Vermont’s superior lifestyle.

Almost any information-based business can now call Vermont home and reap the benefits of our quality of life. This is on display in Middlebury—nearly 70 telecommuters live and play in the Middlebury area, but conduct their work elsewhere (as far away as Singapore) via the Internet. Similarly, Middlebury Interactive Languages is providing online language education to customers around the globe.

Vermont’s single best tool in recruiting these businesses and individuals is our quality of life—it is what sets us apart from every other state. Accessible, affordable, quality child care represents a key part of that equation. If Vermont can forge the best child care system in the country, we will have yet another powerful argument for young families to call Vermont home.

The time for action is now. I applaud the proposed Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate Vermont’s child care opportunities. This commission will arm us with the information we need to make intelligent decisions. It is crucial that we begin this process immediately if we want Vermont to thrive in the coming decades.

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