To grow the economy more equitably, invest in early childhood

As businesses around the country struggle to hire the teams they need to grow, part of the solution lies in early childhood education. 

What do child care and business growth have in common? Everything, as I told lawmakers I met on the Hill last week. 

Even before the pandemic, an estimated half of all American families lived in “child care deserts,” communities where there simply is not enough child care to meet demands.  We lost thousands more child care providers during the COVID years, and as a result, parents – particularly lower income families and rural Americans – are often forced to forgo training or work outside the home at a time when their households need the money and the labor market is clamoring for them.  

To meet labor needs and give children the caring support that neuroscience tells us they need for healthy brain growth, we need to make a greater collective investment in the infrastructure of child care in this country. 

Children are powerful unifiers. As such, it’s no surprise that a bipartisan effort is underway to address this critical need. The Childcare Workforce and Facilities Act, sponsored by Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), must become law as soon as possible. 

“The data overwhelmingly shows that access [to child care] is severely limited in more rural parts of the country, like Alaska,” said Sullivan in introducing the bill. “I hear repeatedly from working Alaska parents that this lack of affordable child care is among their top concerns. This challenge also disproportionately impacts mothers striving to re-enter the workforce.  

By addressing some short-term market inefficiencies, the act would release much-needed workers into the workforce, turbo-charge entrepreneurship for current and would-be child care providers, and lay a necessary foundation for children to thrive as they enter into the K-12 system. 

How so? The law would: 

  • Provide competitive grants to states to support the education, training, or retention of the child care workforce; 
  • Provide competitive grants to states to build, renovate, and expand child care facilities in areas experiencing shortages;  
  • Require that grant applicants demonstrate how their projects would increase the availability and affordability of quality child care, and help child care workers continue to advance their careers. 

We know that early childhood investments yield a tremendous return. High-quality, birth-to-five early education programs have a 13 percent ROI when health benefits are considered.  

This kind of smart public investment is good for children and families. It creates stable opportunities for early learning and healthy development, reliable support for working parents, and demonstrated educational and skill gains for participating children.  

Strong early childhood systems also have the power to mitigate the impact of stressors in building resiliency — as opposed to trauma — in the brain, so that children are better equipped to overcome the inevitable challenges of the future. Healthy early learning environments also help reduce the likelihood of expensive downstream challenges like addiction, homelessness and criminal behavior.  

In my home state of Oregon, we’ve seen high-quality early childhood programs transform the learning experience for young children and their families. The small rural community of Yoncalla, Ore., is a perfect example of this. We’ve seen early literacy skills climb, a reduction in the need for special education services in elementary school, engaged and empowered parents, and a growing commitment to young children from educators, community leaders, legislators and philanthropy.  

Federal and state commitments can and should work together. In Oregon, Gov. Tina Kotek (D) is proposing a large and pioneering investment in the state’s child care and preschool infrastructure by establishing a $100 million early learning and care facilities fund in her new biennial budget. This would effectively expand quality early childhood programs across the state in urban, suburban, rural and remote communities. This comes in the wake of a $10 million investment in partnership with the state’s Department of Housing to ensure that more affordable and workforce housing is inclusive of childcare.  

That investment doesn’t come a moment too soon: according to a study from Oregon State University, 72 percent of Oregon communities are child care deserts. In half of Oregon’s counties, there is less than one child care slot available for every 10 kids who need them. We have shovel-ready projects that just require the capital to get moving.  Together with our federal partners, we could have a game-changing impact on regional economies and the families that live within them.   

My colleagues and I often say that for parents and families with young children, child care is the work that makes all other work possible. Bipartisan legislation like the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, alongside state efforts like the pending legislation in Oregon, is exactly what we need to create meaningful integration between sectors and write an economic equation that puts children at the center. While there are many things that divide us as a country, this is something we can agree on. Children unite us. Children matter. Childcare matters. When we do this, not just in Oregon but across the nation; when we center children and the childcare sector in our economic development strategies, we begin to have a community where all of us, as Americans, can truly thrive.   

Kali Thorne Ladd is chief executive officer at Children’s Institute, a social impact organization that leverages research, policy, and practice to shift systems towards justice for children. She was the cofounder and executive director of KairosPDX, serves on Oregon’s Early Learning Council, and holds a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University.  

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