One of the many revelations for Americans during the pandemic was the role of child care in making the economy work.
To keep companies staffed and women in the workforce, child care programs need to be open and available, people realized. And more than that, they need to be accessible and affordable, too.
It’s one of those pandemic lessons that people keep learning again and again, as labor shortages persist. Employers feel it—they can’t fill their open jobs. Employees feel it—they have to make choices about whether to remain in the workforce, and if they do, they have to step in and do the jobs of their would-be coworkers. And consumers feel it, too—from supply chain issues to long lines to inflationary pressure.
To some, this moment is a burden, a squeeze, a problem with no clear or immediate solution. To others, it’s an opportunity to illustrate that since child care is integral to a functioning economy, we ought to invest in it.
“One blessing out of Covid was it did elevate the conversation around child care in the business industry,” says Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children (Idaho AEYC). “Early childhood advocates have historically come at this as a social issue … but once we started talking about this as an economic issue, business leaders got interested.”
And having allies in the business sector is prudent, since it seems increasingly unlikely that solutions will come from the federal government, which is on track to pass legislation this month that omits the child care provisions present in earlier iterations of the bill. So the issue then falls to states and localities, businesses and non-government institutions to manage.
There are states that have—or will—jump at the opportunity to do so. These are mostly blue states, or states with Democrat-majority legislatures that already invest in early care and education—places where the political will exists and the public is behind it. But in other states, early childhood education advocates have their work cut out for them.
All of these realities factored into the creation of the Early Childhood and Business Advisory Council, a new initiative from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation that, in its first year, will bring together business leaders and early childhood advocates in nine regions across the country.
The goal of the council is to strengthen the relationship between the business and early childhood communities in each region, allowing leaders to brainstorm child care solutions that meet the needs of their populations, in their unique contexts.
It was not an accident that the states represented on the council have a conservative bent: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Texas.
“We wanted to go to states where it might be more of an uphill battle to move child care up the priority list,” says Aaron Merchen, director of policy and programs for early childhood education at the Chamber Foundation.
Oppenheimer, the Idaho AEYC leader and one of the early childhood advocates on the council, says that having most of the states be red states matters.
“It wouldn’t make sense for us to sit down and talk to Massachusetts, because whatever they’re doing in Massachusetts is not what we’d do in Idaho—I can promise you that,” Oppenheimer says wryly, adding that Idaho is more likely to learn lessons from other large, rural, Western states such as Montana and South Dakota.
There was also a feeling among leaders at the Chamber Foundation and BPC that conservative states would be more willing to get involved in the child care crisis if they viewed it as a workforce issue. And that’s exactly the type of argument the council seeks to make.
“We’re not in the darkest period of the pandemic [anymore], but people are still not able to participate in the workforce because of child care, or they’re passing up promotions or new jobs because of child care,” Merchen explains. “That’s why child care is a CEO-level issue, a governor-level issue. It’s why it’s a business issue.”
Linda Smith, director of the early childhood initiative at the BPC, reiterates this point, noting that the business community would be most receptive to the business case for child care.
“You have to know your audience,” she says. “There’s nobody to hire. So businesses can’t afford to not have young women with children in the workforce.”
‘A Vested Interest’
On the council, there is at least one early childhood advocate and one business leader representing each of the nine regions.
In Idaho, Oppenheimer is the early childhood advocate, and her business counterpart is Alex LeBeau, president of the Idaho Chamber of Commerce and Industry. As Oppenheimer and LeBeau work together over the next year to come up with solutions that might ease the child care crisis in their state, they each have a key role to play.
Oppenheimer is attuned to the best practices, policies and funding structures that could help families and providers in Idaho. LeBeau, who is a champion in the child care space, has relationships with business leaders at every level, from small mom-and-pop companies to large corporations, Oppenheimer explains.
“He has the ear of people I can’t get,” she adds. “He’s the connector.”
Some fledgling efforts are already underway.
Kentucky has established a network of home-based child care providers that small- and medium-size businesses can refer their employees to. The idea initially had grant support, but is now using federal funds from the Child Care Development and Block Grant to make it a “permanent support network,” explains Sarah Taylor Vanover, policy and research director at Kentucky Youth Advocates and a member of the new council.
The network is a win-win for both businesses and child care providers, Vanover notes. Smaller businesses don’t have the resources to offer on-site child care the way large corporations do. But they might be able to partner with a home-based provider who has four to six child care slots in their program, thereby offering an attractive workplace benefit to their employees. It’s enticing to providers, too, because it offers a reliable, consistent stream of enrollment and payment.
In some cases, this could involve one or two small businesses partnering with one home-based provider. Or it could be a medium-sized business partnering with a handful of providers. However it functions, the idea is that providers have consistent attendance and working parents have a stable source of child care that allows them to go to their job every day.
Kentucky is the first state to pursue this model, Vanover says, but Connecticut is working on something similar. And really, it’s a model many states could adapt and scale, she says, particularly in rural areas where center-based care is less available and oftentimes unsustainable, and where nontraditional hours or weekend shifts are in demand.
In this year’s state legislative session, Kentucky also passed a bill to pilot a new program for businesses interested in contributing to part of their employees’ child care expenses. In this model, the state matches whatever the employer is willing to contribute, so if a business is willing to pay 50 percent, the state covers the remaining 50 percent and the employees owe nothing. That program is in the “construction phase,” Vanover says, and would go into effect next July.
Both models are efforts to ensure consistent, reliable child care for parents so they can find, keep or perform better in their jobs.
“The business community has a vested interest,” Vanover says. “If they want their employees to come, they need to find a way. There has to be a method for that employee to get to work. Their children have to be cared for. Right now, when there is a shortage of child care, it benefits the business community to help the employee find that child care.”
Seeking Solutions That Scale
During the next year, representatives from the nine states on the Early Childhood and Business Advisory Council will work toward implementing local remedies in their own states while sharing ideas and outcomes with one another in group meetings.
The hope is that, at this moment, when so many people are feeling the impact of child care shortages in their communities, the group members can harness the attention on the industry and turn it into something good—funding, partnerships, increased public buy-in.
“It’s not going to be one grand master plan from above that solves child care everywhere,” acknowledges Grace Decker, strategic collaboration coordinator for Zero to Five, an early childhood-focused nonprofit in Missoula County, Montana, and a member of the council. “It’s going to be threading together lots of innovative solutions that bring resources into the mix that weren’t there before.”
Decker says she wants to develop a “bank of examples” from other states and localities represented on the council, a collection of ideas that they’ve tried and that have worked.
“The goal is to open up the conversation of what is possible and what this looks like on the ground,” Decker says.
Eventually, after the nine states have spent a year learning from one another, the BPC and Chamber Foundation hope to see how other states might borrow their ideas and scale them in their own communities.
It’s too soon to say what will happen after the year ends—the inaugural cohort of this council only started this summer—but with any luck, Smith and Merchen would both like to see a second cohort next year, with different states bringing their challenges and solutions to the table.