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In 2012, Local Child Care Planning Council of Humboldt (Cal.) County uploaded their video “A Day Without Child Care” to YouTube. Nearly 10 years later, the points it raised are even more salient, especially magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The premise is basic: people who do not have child care are not able to go to work, which has far-reaching impacts with a range of severity.

Child care has a unique position in the economic equation because it makes it possible for people to go to work in other sectors. A restaurant without enough staff doesn’t necessarily impact health care. However, when there are not enough people providing child care that impacts everyone.

Child care has never been easy to find. But the recent worker shortage has only worsened the problem, creating challenges for parents who are feeling pressure to go back to the office.

Every sector, including child care, is struggling to hire right now. There are a variety of factors contributing to this, and at least one outcome is clear: there is a decrease in the supply of child care slots. There is not a lack of space – we have two of our six classrooms closed in the Early Learning Center at Winston Prouty and need to hire more people to keep the other four open this fall. For a while, we were not even getting any applicants! Our waiting list has grown to over 70 families, 75 percent of whom need infant/toddler (birth to age 3) care. This is clearly having an impact on people being able to enter or re-enter the workforce.

There has been much discussion about the outsized impact the pandemic has had on women being able to work. When the world shut down in March 2020 and children were home from child care and school, the job of taking care of the children largely fell along gender lines and women absorbed much of the caregiving responsibility. According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, more than 4 million women dropped out of the labor force between February and April 2020; about half had not returned as of May 2021. In a recent CNBC interview, Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association said that the industry lost 350,000 employees, or about a third of its workforce, during the pandemic.

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Even when working at home was a possibility for some of those caregivers, juggling professional work with family responsibilities was not viable or sustainable, and many women left the workforce altogether. Now, if they have young children, they may not be able to return. And since women make up most of the workforce in child care, we are likely to continue to keep struggling with hiring, especially since it is a low-wage, high-stress field. And we can’t pay employees more without raising tuition, creating a vicious cycle.

During the pandemic, the government grants that offset operating costs and paid for personal protective equipment was helpful, but funding that is directly intended to boost staff pay is needed. Governmental support, for both parents and the people who take care of their children, is the only solution. The recent child tax credit is a good start to transform the child care system.

Until we shore up the financial pieces of the child care puzzle, our economic development efforts will be severely handicapped. Understanding that child care is foundational to our economy, like housing, roads, broadband, and other infrastructure is key. Increased investment is needed to boost wages, decrease tuition costs on families, and support education and professional development for those working in the field.

We are facing a firehose of funding for infrastructure that already feels like a lot of money flowing into our state. And, it is likely to get much bigger. If we are going to take full advantage of these resources, we need to have cross-sector conversations and creative thinking among the many entities necessary to help solve the puzzle.

How will we bring together early childhood experts with economic development experts at the state and local levels? Let’s start by recognizing child care as infrastructure. Then we can identify, connect, and convene the decision-makers overseeing the funding across departments and agencies. Our future depends on it.

Chloe Learey is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.