Guest opinion: Child care underpins our economy

Derek Miller 03

Often the first decision many parents make surrounds who is taking care of their children that day, what do they need, what’s the schedule, and how can they plan work around their child’s needs. This selfless act and choice is made by millions, daily. Single parents especially face a daunting task of caring for children that may need to learn at home and still being able to perform work responsibilities.  

I believe single and working parents should not be forced into a Faustian bargain of not working because they have no one to care for their child. Recent commentary highlighted that 27 million working Americans need child care services to remain employed. Compounded on top of this are the financial constraints being placed on young parents with school-age children to hire sitters, pay for online education or switch their children to private schools offering in-person learning. 

These rising child care expenses stretch thin many of the already struggling families to cope with the chain reaction the virus is causing in our education ecosystem, workforce and family life.  Child care and learning are integral to the social and economic needs of families, and its absence constitutes a barrier to physical and financial health for individuals and our community.  Studies show children need proper care and interaction for mental health and cognitive development

Some good news is that science suggests children are safer interacting and routine cleanings and face masks can further mitigate the risk involved with interaction at daycare centers or in the home. Further, child care has been called a two-generation issue of complexity because it is necessary to support our workforce today and critical in developing our leaders of tomorrow.

Hence, resuming full economic activity to the benefit of everyone requires that our children receive proper care and opportunities to learn while parents work at home or the office. Two key questions remain: How do we care for those who need daycare? How do we adequately support learning online in the homes? The overall well being of our rising generation should be a top concern for leaders in business and government.

First, we must make the decision for broadband to be an essential utility across our state. While Congress debates, our leaders should focus attention and concentrate effort to create our own intrastate superhighway of broadband to every corner of Utah. Connection of technology and people should be our state’s baseline not our moonshot. This will pay dividends for generations as children develop STEM skills not only during school or daycare centers but anytime they want to learn with a broadband connection. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children found that in Utah 81% of child care centers are serving fewer children today than before the pandemic with average enrollment down by over half at 53%. Nearly a third of child care centers will close permanently without additional public assistance. Finally, the dire case is punctuated with the fact of reduced capacity for public health and additional PPE costs leaving over half expecting to close within six months. 

The $40 million in federal CARES Act supplemental funding Utah received to support child care is not enough. The state has seen 40% of the home-based and center providers close even with this funding. Hence, our state should continue to implement temporary regulatory actions to help licensed centers open or reopen to meet operational challenges and provide additional support from the state’s emergency fund. 

Finally, businesses should strive for flexibility with their employees who have small children in the home and who lack options for care or in-person learning. Some businesses might consider extended remote work plans if it fits with their business model. Business and government must come together with solutions. Beyond its obvious and positive influence in the lives of our children, child care and education are some of the big parts of our economy and the hidden factor in all productive family systems. Let’s work to provide options for those needing them so we get our economy back to full employment. In this way we can all win together.