Access to child care is the issue we need to drive debate

The story has become routine. In Vermont, eight out of every 10 children who need child care do not have access to it. There are too many children with a need that the state cannot afford, or has elected not to.

For those children from families who can afford it, the services are available. They are not in abundance, but they are there, and they are priced accordingly. The challenge is for the low and middle-income families. The number of child care services continues to plummet – a result of low pay to providers and state regulations intended to get providers to up their game.

Here’s the reality: If Vermont doesn’t figure out how to address the issue, its struggle to meet our workforce needs will only increase. If we don’t figure out how to give these children access to high quality care, we can also assume the continued increase in what we pay to cover human services costs. Both eventualities are hugely expensive and subtract from the state’s ability to prosper.

It’s primarily a resource issue. The manpower needs to be available, as does the space and the financial resources to support both.

But we already know there are no new pots of money to tap. Particularly for the millions upon millions that would be required. If the proposed cuts from the Trump administration materialize, it becomes even more problematic.

To address the challenge will require four things:

First, recognize the issue for what it is. There are few challenges more fundamental to the state’s future. Don’t let it slip from the radar. Tell the story compellingly and often. This is a role that falls to the governor, the administration and our elected leaders.

Second, tell the story in a way that makes it an issue of self interest to employers and to the public in general. This sector of the economy has more capacity to help than supposed; but a compelling case has yet to be made and they will not step forward if the plan is not sustainable or if the funding burden falls on them alone.

Third, take a look at the Vt. Agency of Human Services, the largest agency in state government, and one with a multi-billion dollar budget. Vermont is one of the most charitable states in the nation when it comes to general welfare programs.

If Vermont follows the national trend, and if more than a fifth of our men between the ages of 25 and 54 are able-bodied but on Medicaid, then if stricter work requirements were mandated, would that not free funding to be used for child care? Are there other examples? And doesn’t it follow that better child care services lead to a better educational outcome, which leads to less dependency on “income maintenance” programs?

Fourth, consider the educational system as a pre-K through 16 model, one whose goal is to improve the matriculation rate from high school to college. Presently, we’re near the bottom nationally. The only way to make those essential gains is to have children be better prepared before entering school, i.e., better child care.

Our schools could play a key and very obvious role from several perspectives; we’ve lost a quarter of the state’s student population, and the decline continues, which means that somewhere there is excess capacity. How is this unused space being employed? If our teacher/pupil ratio is half the national average, then do we not have skilled professionals capable of the required instruction? (It would be helpful if the teachers – the professionals in this circumstance – would add their voices to the debate.)

If we are to succeed, each of these four targets will need to be addressed and each will need to be seen as indispensible to the overall goal, which is figuring out an affordable, more efficient way to deal with the needs of about half to three-quarters of Vermont’s youngest children.

In doing so, we would end up discovering better ways to deal with the entire social/educational structure of Vermont. At many levels, for example, we can no longer separate what happens within the Vt. Agency of Education and the Vt. Agency of Human Services.

One directly affects the other. Figuring out creative ways to use the same dollar to hit two needs is what should motivate anyone truly interested in reform on a meaningful scale.

But that “cooperation” doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be forced by a need. This is that need.

Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of the Essex Reporter and our parent company, the St. Albans Messenger, where this editorial was first published.

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