Feb 12, 2021

How child care could change Vermont's economy

Vermont may be at the cusp of unlocking its economic and social potential in a way that’s inviting to both Republicans and Democrats. It’s figuring out how to devise, and pay for, a high-quality, affordable child care system.

The framework has been roughed out in H.171, a bill that received its first viewing this week by the House Committee on Human Services. The bill ensures that child care would cost no Vermont family more than 10 percent of its income by 2026, a proposal that comes with a price tag of somewhere between $300 and $500 million annually.

In times past, a proposal of this scope would be dead on arrival, burdened by its cost and the objection of conservatives who would recast it as another form of welfare and governmental overreach.

But the lens through which H.171 is being viewed has changed, as have circumstances; The bill has attracted strong support from Progressives, Democrats AND Republicans. In the House, two-thirds of the representatives have sponsored the bill.

The reason is that properly dealing with Vermont’s child care needs is, when fully understood, something that crosses all political boundaries, expressed or not. Particularly with our challenging demographics. We have at least a third of our population being held back from its potential which affects levels of consumer spending, good employment opportunities, education and government support services. The absence of good, affordable child care is one of the reasons why, something exacerbated by the pandemic.

Manufacturers can’t produce at necessary levels if they can’t get help that is qualified. That need is becoming more acute as our population ages. This understanding is a key reason many of the economic development people in Vermont support the child care initiative. They understand the difficulty Vermont’s businesses face as the state’s labor pool shrinks. This support is a dramatic break from political beliefs of an age past.

The same beleaguered demographic plays heavily in the fate of Vermont’s higher education community. If families had the child care options they need, that would release a pent up demand this demographic has to further its education. If the Vermont State College system has a way forward — other than to simply ask for more money — it’s by increasing the size of the educational pool. Vermont sits at the bottom nationally when it comes to the percentage of students who go on to college after high school. We have 40 percent-plus of our high school students who don’t further their education. That’s unacceptable and it cuts short our economic potential. A good child care program is a key part of Vermont’s long-term strategy to address this economic and educational shortcoming.

This need/opportunity is also beginning to take hold at the federal level with current discussions about expanding the child tax credit and other proposals that make up the proposed “child allowance.” Republican Senator Mitch Romney, of Utah, last week introduced the “Family Security Act” which would give families $250 per child per month for kids ages 6-17 and $350 a month for newborns to five-year-olds. The Biden Administration is putting forth similar proposals of its own. This is encouraging for supporters of H.171; any help the feds can offer makes Vermont’s proposal less expensive.

Mr. Romney’s proposal stunned the far right, which typifies such proposals as welfare. But, as with the bipartisan support of H.171 in Vermont, the perception is starting to change. For simple reasons; we’re not making any progress following past courses and most other nations have even more aggressive measures in place and are reporting better results than we are at the lower income levels. This includes Canada, our neighbor to the north.

The break from the past reflects a change in how its viewed, courtesy, in part, of the pandemic. Sending checks directly to American households as direct income supplements worked when nothing else could. That’s what we’re looking at with the proposed child care legislation. We have no choice but to change our course and conservatives should be leading the charge; it fits their pro-family, pro-economy, pro-education beliefs to a T.

Click here to read this editorial on the St. Albans Messenger website. 

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