Childcare is Essential for Everyone
Chlldcare is a good community factor to begin with, because it illustrates how individual social determinants of health are interrelated, how community health and community economic prosperity are really the same thing and how the pandemic has made some things very clear.
To me, it’s sort of odd that childcare is even an issue. People, assuming they don’t really grasp the complexities of the issues, can argue about things like housing, healthcare and substance use treatment. I’m not sure that anybody really wants to argue about childcare. Workers know it’s important. Employers know it’s important. Economic and government leaders know it’s important. People who didn’t really think about it before the pandemic, because they didn’t have kids or they never had childcare issues because grandma was right up the road or whatever, were introduced to the nature of childcare as an essential service when schools were closed, and workers couldn’t go to work because there wasn’t anyone to look after the kids. And then, even if a person manages to still not care about childcare, as such, there is the value of the preschool aspect of childcare that is a huge factor in the readiness of kids to start Kindergarten and to succeed as they progress on through elementary school. From one perspective or another, EVERYBODY should grasp that childcare is a good and necessary thing for our communities. And yet, there still isn’t enough high-quality, affordable childcare available, particularly in rural places, like ours.
Let’s peel back these various layers. People have kids. This, fortunately for the species, has been the case ever since there were people. A birth rate of slightly above 2 kids per family is required just to maintain the size of the population (excluding significant immigration). For much of our history in this country, childcare wasn’t a huge issue for two main reasons—one is that most families included two parents, only one of whom worked outside the house. The other is that people were less mobile back in the day and families tended to remain nearby, offering all sorts of support options, including childcare, if needed. Neither of those remain the norm today. In the US, about 70% of kids still live in two-parent households, but the number of kids living with single mothers has more than doubled since 1970 to about 21% (US Census). Even when a kid lives in a two-parent household, only about 1 in 5 households have a stay-at-home parent because most of the time, a household requires two incomes to make ends meet. So, because most parents must work, childcare is more of a need now than ever, and since it is less common now than in the past to live near parents and other close relatives who might provide care, the need for centralized childcare facilities continues to grow. So, just from the perspective of working parents, we need more childcare. When there are insufficient options for childcare, parents are often excluded from the workforce. This is particularly an issue for parents of infants. Many childcare facilities won’t take kids until they are 3 or 4 years old, and toilet trained, because of cost and the logistics of caring for babies. Having kids shouldn’t be a career-killer for new parents, but it is, sadly, often the case, particularly for parents with lower incomes and parents in rural places like ours with limited childcare options.
Let’s look at it from the workforce perspective. As I previously mentioned, the limiting factor in any rural community is people and if we are to navigate the new economy, we have to make the most of the people we have. In our region of western Kentucky, the workforce participation rate is about 55%, compared to about 58% for the state and 62% nationally. That may not seem like a huge difference, but in our 11-county region of western Kentucky, the population is about 250,000. A seven percent difference between us and the national average amounts to about 17,500 people who are not working could be, for whatever reason. Just in Hopkins County, it amounts to over 3000 people who are not actively in the workforce. Some of those people aren’t working because they can find or can’t afford childcare. This is something we can address. If we add, for instance 150 new childcare slots in Hopkins County, that is space for 150 kids. If providing care for those 150 kids allows even 75 people who want to work to get back into the labor force, that is a HUGE economic win for our communities. Say those 75 people who aren’t working are using $30,000 a year in benefits, like SNAP and housing support, that is over $2.25 million dollars. If those people go to work and start making a living wage (let’s say $15 an hour), they will be making $30,000 a year, paying taxes, etc. That is adding $2.25 million of economic activity to our economy. Between those two numbers, adding 150 childcare slots added $4.5 million of value to our economy. In reality, it might not be quite that much, because these are estimates, but it’s probably pretty close. It could even be more. I’d say that is the very definition of a win-win scenario. It actually gets even better, because a facility of that size, operating 24 hours a day to accommodate shift workers, would employ about 50 people, all of whom would be making at least a living wage, adding another $1.5-2 million of productivity to the workforce annually. Childcare issues cost this country over $57 billion (that’s with a “b”) in lost productivity, tax revenues and other economic activity every year. The cost in Kentucky alone is over $700 million. This is not a small issue.
Now let’s examine it from the employer side. Right now, the pool of potential employees in this region is extremely tight. There are lots of factors contributing to that, but part of it is due to the unavailability of childcare, particularly after the pandemic. Recruiting and training new employees is an expensive proposition, even when the supply of available labor is high. I used to work for an organization where it cost at least $50,000 to recruit and onboard skilled workers, and that was some years ago. The market for those workers has gotten much tighter since then, so I’m sure recruiting has gotten even more expensive and difficult. The more expensive and difficult it is to recruit makes retaining workers a priority, because they are very expensive to replace, not even taking into account how the loss of the skilled worker impacts your operations. Childcare is a very attractive inducement during recruiting, particularly in occupations that employ a lot of women. If childcare isn’t available or affordable, many people just won’t or can’t consider taking a job. Even if they take the job, it may prove difficult to keep them is childcare issues become frequent. All employers know this. In the past, this relationship between childcare and employee recruitment, satisfaction and retention has just been a given and “just part of the cost of doing business”. Now, however, many employers, particularly larger employers are accepting the fact that, if they want to be competitive for employees and if they want to keep their recruiting and retention cost lower, they need to address childcare directly and offer employees either direct access to on-site childcare or support to help pay for other childcare arrangements. Adding quality, affordable childcare capacity is, then, an economic development tool to help employers manage their workforces and lower their overall costs.
So, adding more affordable, high-quality childcare is a clear win for parents. It’s a huge economic benefit to the community. It is a great tool for workforce and economic development. It’s a great tool for helping employers find and keep good workers, while lowering their HR costs. Now, let’s look at it from the kids’ perspective.
Having kids is difficult. Everyone knows that, whether they have or have had kids of their own, or not. They complicate things. We’ve touched on some of that here. What is a new mother to do when she wants to go back to work? The answer to that question, here, as in most rural places is, “not much” because they options are few. There aren’t nearly enough childcare providers around here and most of those do not provide care for infants and toddlers. The only other option, if a new parent is lucky enough to have it, is family or friends who can provide reliable, consistent care. “Reliable” and “consistent” are the key words, there. Even for parents who have made arrangements for some sort of regular care, they are forced to miss at least 8 hours of work a month due to some complication with their childcare. That makes things difficult for employees and employers alike.
One positive thing that many parents will say about having family or friends watch their kids (aside from cost, which is certainly no small thing), is that they feel comfortable leaving their kids with a trusted person. I certainly can understand that. There is nothing like that bond, particularly if a family member, like Grandma, is watching the kids. However, there is more to this than just that trust. It’s not just the time spent. It’s HOW the time is spent. The people in a professional childcare setting are just that—professionals. A quality childcare center is not just a warehouse to safely park kids in while their parents are at work. A quality childcare center is a place for education, socialization and enrichment. Kids who do preschool do better afterwards, and not just by a little bit. You might trust Grandma to take good care of your kids, but unless she is a retired early childhood development teacher, she probably won’t be able to provide the developmental opportunities that a quality childcare center can.
So, expanding the availability of affordable, quality childcare is, demonstrably, a win-win-win-win. If that is the case, why haven’t we got the situation all sorted out by now? The answer to that isn’t entirely straightforward, as it is not a simple issue, but the main reasons are the same as the reasons that we haven’t done a lot of other things that are undeniably win-wins. It comes down to cost and the fact that this isn’t how we’ve always done it. That last bit there is my biggest pet peeve. Personally, I think just saying “That isn’t how we’ve always done it” should be punishable by significant jail time. But I digress.
First, let’s discuss cost. There are three players in the cost discussion. The first and most obvious is the parent. They are the ones who have borne most, if not all, of the costs for childcare in the past. Before going further into this, you should know that, in most parts of the United States, childcare costs more than a college education, and we have all been hearing the discussions about how outrageously expensive a college education has become. In most parts of Kentucky, it isn’t quite that bad, but it’s close, on a yearly basis. If a parent has one 4-year-old child in childcare, the cost at a relatively inexpensive center is going to be about $6,250 a year. The full-year tuition at a regional state university in Kentucky is a little over $9000 a year. $6200 is not an insignificant amount of money for anyone, even if they make “good money”. For someone in a lower-wage job, $6200 can eat up most of their pay, making it financially impossible to work. Now consider what the situation is if you have an infant or toddler in care. They cost even more. And what about multiple kids? Obviously, this expense can get way beyond anything manageable, very quickly. The second player is the government. In the past, federal and state governments have offered some help with childcare costs, generally in the form of tax credits. This support helps, particularly for low-wage earners, but it is only a small benefit for most people and doesn’t cover even most of the cost. There has been recent legislation passed at both the state and federal levels to help lower the final, out-of-pocket costs to parents, but while these new supports help, they still do not address the fundamental problems with either cost or availability. The final player on the childcare cost scene is one that hasn’t, in the past, typically played much of a role—employers. It’s not that employers are, as we covered above, unaware of the impact of childcare on their employees. They are. It’s not that they have just decided that it’s not their problem and they aren’t going to help pay for it. They have been paying for what childcare issues does to their recruiting, retention and the productivity of their workforces all along. It’s just been “a cost of doing business”. Now, many employers are coming to accept that, in the modern economy with tight labor markets and so many single-parent households or households with both parents working, childcare is something they need to address directly, as a benefit, because it’s better for everyone and cheaper for the employer.
To make a childcare system that works, that is affordable and that reliably provides the essential service that we all acknowledge childcare to be, we will have to develop partnerships between parents, employers and government. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel or make this up as we go. It’s already been done in other parts of the country, where labor costs and other conditions have been such that childcare has been a top-shelf workforce and economic issue for years. Employers, if they want to recruit and retain quality employees, are going to have to help their employees pay the costs of childcare. Government is going to have to develop new policies to support childcare providers, workers and employers. Childcare is an essential service and we need to treat it as such. We need more centers to provide more capacity and those new centers will need more professional staff. To attract and keep that staff, we will have to expand training opportunities for professional certification and advancement, and we will have to pay childcare workers a living wage. This isn’t 1950. This is 2022. June Cleaver is not home vacuuming the rug in her heels and pearls anymore. She’s at work trying to provide for her family, the same as everyone else.
In rural places where people are in short supply, we have to do things like this, among other things, to maximize our productivity. More childcare will mean more people in the workforce. It will mean more productivity for employers, and it will mean better early childhood development for the kids, with all sorts of benefits downstream from that.
The ARCH Community Health Coalition, in partnership with the United Way of the Coalfield and other community stakeholders, has developed a proposal to build two new childcare facilities, one in Hopkins County and one in Muhlenberg County. That will not be enough to serve the region, but it is a start. These facilities will provide care to kids of all ages, because finding care for infants and toddlers is even more difficult and expensive than finding care for older kids. The idea is that expanding care for younger kids can help prevent having children from being a “career killer” for new parents, particularly mothers who often have no choice but to leave the workforce to care for their children. These parents often find it difficult to re-establish themselves on their career paths once their kids reach school age. The facilities will also be available 24/7 to support shift workers and those, often lower-paid, workers who work evenings and weekends. In addition to providing support to employers and workers, these facilities will also benefit the kids. They will operate as early childhood development centers, providing enrichment at every stage, plus pre-K education to help prepare kids for Kindergarten and later success in school and in life. Supporting the health, development and education of kids is one of the best investments we can make, and this is one very impactful way to do that.
We are currently engaging with both employers and the public, conducting a needs assessment, gathering data on how much additional capacity we need to build, where it needs to be, when it needs to be available and so on. We are engaging with employers to try to help provide what they need to support their workforces. Some employers may want to partner with us to operate some number of childcare slots that will be reserved for their employees. Some employers might prefer to offer subsidies directly to their employees to help offset the cost of childcare. We are working with government officials and agencies to push policy changes that will support the development of a childcare system that has the capacity and the quality that we need to enable our communities to prosper in the new economy.
As I mentioned, this can only work if we partner together to make it happen. We, and many rural places like us, have needed this for years. Employers know it, government leaders know it, economic development people know it, educators know it, and parents dang sure know it. Right now, we have an opportunity to make it happen and to do it right so that we will end up with a viable, sustainable addition to our communities that will be a key to our long-term health and prosperity. The time is now.