Scott Woodward: Investing in affordable child care
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Scott Woodward, an information technology consultant and Vermont Law School graduate who lives in North Pomfret. He is a former independent candidate for the state Senate in Windsor County, a member of Pomfret’s Capital Planning Committee, a member of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Patient & Family Advisory Council and a member of Vermont’s Early Childhood Business Council.
Solving our child care challenges is imperative from a variety of perspectives. As I often read and hear, many of us face these challenges personally in our day-to-day lives. While not all of us may have a direct personal stake in early childhood development, nearly all of us are impacted by it in the broader economic context. As Gov. Scott so aptly described in his recent inaugural address, addressing our state’s shortage of high-quality, affordable child care is very much a part of resolving Vermont’s overall affordability issues.
That’s why I’ve decided to join Vermont’s Early Childhood Business Council. We are a coalition of employers and business leaders who recognize the importance of high-quality, affordable child care to Vermont’s economic health and prosperity.
In the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell, I’m writing this commentary as a rallying cry for businesses, workers and legislators to become more invested in this issue for the sake of reaching a tipping point. Thanks to the work of organizations such as Let’s Grow Kids, we’re oh so close. The energy is flowing in the right direction and I believe 2017 could be the year that the tipping point is reached. Politically, child care is a non-partisan problem and therefore there are plenty of seats at the table.
According to the Joint Fiscal Office’s 2015 Basic Needs Budget, child care is generally the second highest expenditure behind housing. In fact, for families with two wage earners and two children, child care costs exceed housing costs by upwards of $200 per month. Middle-income families with two parents and two young children spend 28 to 40 percent of their income on child care. Shockingly, the cost of child care often exceeds the cost of in-state tuition at Vermont’s state colleges.
Whenever I see an opportunity, I ask parents about their child care experiences. A friend of mine, a mother of three kids, told me she had just $9 left over from her bi-weekly paycheck after child care expenses for two kids. Her husband’s paycheck took care of the rest of the bills. Now it’s true that my friend could have just stayed home since paying for child care was essentially a wash. In fact, she did stay home while her kids were infants and toddlers, but she’s a professional woman and wanted to get back to work not only because she’s a go-getter, but also for her sanity. In today’s dynamic work world, mothers and fathers should have the ability and flexibility to balance parenting responsibilities and the desire to work. As it stands, they’re often forced to make tough choices.
Parents, such as my friend, who want to work, should not be so heavily constrained from joining the workforce. Importantly, my friend did not decide to re-enter the workforce until after she was confident that her kids had received high-quality child care at the most important stages of her kids’ development. Even after going back to work, she told me that she sought the highest quality she could afford.
When working parents can’t find child care, businesses lose talented employees and become less productive and efficient. According to Let’s Grow Kids, child care challenges cost U.S. employers an estimated $3 billion annually. National research shows that over a six-month period 45 percent of parents are absent from work at least once due to child care issues, missing an average of 4.3 days, and 65 percent of parents’ work schedules are affected by child care challenges an average of 7.5 times. Vermont needs an economy that’s firing on all cylinders.
In the broader economic perspective, solving Vermont’s affordability issues means growing the economy and growing the economy requires adding workers. On Jan. 9, VTDigger published a press release citing a report from the Vermont Futures Project that highlights the need for over 10,000 additional workers per year to grow the economy. If the past is prologue, then Vermont indeed has major demographic challenges ahead.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1980, Vermont had 193,146 people aged 20-44. As of 2010, that number dropped to 191,832. Hopefully the 2020 Census will show improvements, but the reality is that our working age demographic is stagnant and that’s not likely to change any time soon. The obvious message is that whatever success we have in attracting new people to Vermont, that effort should not be constrained by factors that would keep people out of the workforce. Surely, working or staying home is a personal choice, but staying at home or working should not be the only choice.
So what’s the ask here? If you’re a business owner, worker or legislator, or otherwise have an economic stake in solving our child care challenges, then please join in on the conversation. Get involved, get vocal. Familiarize yourself with the facts and realities. Talk to parents and talk to businesses to help figure out solutions. Be creative and don’t be afraid to break new ground. Help create the groundswell that will get us to a tipping point.
The solutions to solving our child care challenges are still somewhat fuzzy, but they are gradually coming into focus. The more we talk about it, the more the answers will reveal themselves. Visit www.letsgrowkids.org for more information. And if you’re a business leader, consider joining me on Vermont’s Early Childhood Business Council. Learn more at www.ecbcvermont.org.