The business case for child care is the societal case for child care

I was born in Custer, South Dakota, a town of 2,000 people in the southern Black Hills. The identities of small-town kids in the ’90s were wrapped in a range of traits — things like friend groups, sports allegiances, and what your parents did for a living. I remember getting fresh cuts at Pat’s Barber Shop (run by Michael and Justin’s father), filling cavities at Custis Dental Shop (Tyler’s parents), marveling at Jorgensen Log Homes (Tyson’s parents) and birthday parties at Pizza Works (Clay’s parents). These entrepreneurial families have been community pillars providing services, sponsoring and training T-Ball teams, and investing on many levels in our small but vibrant community.

Custer is a symbol of America in many ways. Nearly half of all workers in the United States work in small businesses. Eighty percent of these small businesses have no employees and are run by a single owner — such as Pat’s Barber Shop — while another 16% employ fewer than 20 people.

In small towns and cities across the country, the closure of one particular type of small business can devastate a community: child care providers.

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Custer YMCA child care center — the city’s largest and only licensed provider — was teetering on the brink of closure, facing a $57,000 budget shortfall. The center has taken its case to the Board of County Commissioners, explaining that if dozens of children no longer receive quality, age-appropriate care, their families will face the impossible choice of leaving the workforce or leaving the community altogether.

The Custer Board of Directors awarded the full $57,000 in federal pandemic relief funds to the YMCA, recognizing that a working parent’s ability to participate in the local workforce is as much about keeping a community strong as it is about keeping businesses afloat.

This understanding – that companies are embedded in, not separate from, the communities in which they operate – is the driving force behind many employers leading innovative endeavors to address the child care challenges facing their employees and fellow community members.

Right now, the United States has 3 million more open jobs than available workers. In a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study of the unemployed, nearly a third of survey respondents said that caring for children and/or dependents made it difficult or impossible to return to the labor force.

This is partly because the childcare workforce itself is in a state of crisis, with thousands of early childhood teachers leaving the sector in the past three years. To address the shortage of providers and create more opportunities for working children and parents to thrive, public-private partnerships can help. For example, an innovative partnership in Iowa between Iowa City, Johnson County and local businesses created the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program in an effort to build a sustainable source of funding and strengthen the local child care workforce for years to come.

In Idaho, semiconductor company Micron Technology plans not only to open child care centers across the street from its Boise headquarters and near a manufacturing plant in New York state, but also to fund a $500,000 initiative to train early childhood teachers with the goal of building a child care network as strong as Enough so that all Micron employees have the option of accessing quality care.

A broad, one-size-fits-all approach to child care cannot address the diverse and unique needs of child care providers, working families, and employers. Fortunately, we have seen states, communities, and individual companies lead the way and take it upon themselves to help alleviate the pressure points that child care gaps create.

For example, in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, plastics manufacturer i2M realized that the availability of child care was a major barrier to its regional workforce. i2M has partnered with another local business, Building Blocks Child Center, to subsidize the cost of care and provide extended-hour care, which better fits the schedules of working parents.

Across the country in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood provides its employees with a child care network and concierge service as well as a monthly stipend to support thousands of theme park and resort workers. (“Be more like Dolly Parton” is always a good rule.)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Child Care Roadmap highlights these examples and more, and provides innovative tools for employers seeking to support their employees’ child care needs.

Whether in Texas, Alaska, Utah, North Carolina, or elsewhere, gaps in child care are costing our country billions of dollars in economic losses. But the business case for childcare extends beyond that. It’s about ensuring children have the foundation they need to excel throughout their lives. It’s about empowering working families so they can thrive at home and in the workforce. It’s about recognizing that access to flexible, high-quality child care is essential for businesses — like Pat’s Barber Shop and Jorgensen Log Homes — to survive and for communities to thrive.

(tags for translation) Aaron Mershen

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