Guest Columnist

For essential workers, nothing is more essential than child care

Union photo by Gretchen TeskeThe First Assembly of God child care center in Washington.
Union photo by Gretchen TeskeThe First Assembly of God child care center in Washington.

For the last three weeks, our country has grappled with the question, “In a crisis, what can’t we live without?”

We’ve had to make tough calls in our attempts to answer this question — millions of Americans are now without work; students must put their education on hold; and all of us face the same unrelenting solitude as we wait for a situation outside our control to improve.

Collectively, we’ve invested our hopes in the men and women deemed essential. From medical professionals to grocery store employees — these are the people keeping our society afloat in the face of collapse.

Although most of us can’t fight beside them, we’ve come together to do what we can to assist them — whether it’s donating supplies, sewing masks or cheering them on from the sidelines. But there’s one “essential” thing these workers need that we can’t just pack into a box and ship through the mail — child care.

• An Industry in Trouble

Before any of us had even seen or heard the term COVID-19, Iowa’s child care industry was already in crisis. Despite the fact that Iowa leads our nation in the number of parents who work outside the home, 23 percent of Iowans live in a child care desert — an area in which there are either no licensed child care providers or where there are more than three children for every available slot.

In a matter of weeks, the situation has become even more dire as both licensed centers and in-home providers close their doors at alarming rates. While this may be a temporary move for some, many will not have the adequate resources or capital to reopen. And with the remaining providers stretched increasingly thin, essential workers with children must now choose between caring for their family or caring for their community.

If we allow Iowa’s child care industry to crumble, piece by piece, how will we fare when the next disaster strikes? And how will we make it through the one we face now?

• Looking for Solutions

For the last two-plus years, the Iowa Women’s Foundation and our many partners have fought to make child care more accessible and affordable for Iowans. Through our Building Community Child Care Solutions (BCCCS) initiative, we’ve made real progress:

The business community, in a remarkable show of solidarity, has come together to share solutions for expanding child care benefits to employees. Later this year, once it’s safe to meet again, we’ll formally launch a new initiative, the Iowa Business & Child Care Coalition, to make it easier for businesses to find resources and incentives to invest in company supported child care.

We’ve also helped entrepreneurs start and grow their own child care businesses. As the crisis continues, we’re amping up our support for these essential workers by creating a shared services program that will allow child care providers to collaborate on a communitywide level. Look for more on this in the weeks to come.

Finally, we’ve worked alongside elected officials and passionate community activists to get legislation on the books that supports Iowa’s working families. But as the COVID-19 crisis looms, we’re in danger of losing momentum — even backtracking — on an issue that matters now more than ever.

We cannot fight for child care alone. We need the help of everyone in our community in order to rise to this unprecedented challenge. Here’s what you can do to help:

First, we need to see child care recognized as an essential service and its work force as essential employees — in both times of crisis and times of prosperity. Let’s collectively shift our perspective so we value those working in this underappreciated industry. Let’s support increased wages and better access to government funding. And when the crisis is over, let’s keep this sentiment alive.

Secondly, we need to make sure child care providers are among the first beneficiaries of any government stimulus package. To do this, we need to voice our support for the child care industry to national, state and local lawmakers. In less than 5 minutes, you can email your local representatives and ask them to prioritize child care in upcoming legislation. These officials are working tirelessly to help us through this crisis — help them see the need for child care so they can be even more effective in their work. (Visit https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/find to learn how to get in touch with your local legislators.)

• When the Next Crisis Hits — Will We Be Ready?

It is abundantly clear that when the next disaster strikes — whether it’s a viral infection, a natural disaster or some unforeseen catastrophe — the outcome will be dependent on how we handle the situation before us today.

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By the time the next “big one” hits, will we have learned the painful lesson of 2020? Will we continue to treat child care as a luxury, or just a women’s issue? Or will we finally recognize it for the essential service it is?

The answer rests in the hands of our community.

Dawn Oliver Wiand is executive director of the Iowa Women’s Foundation.

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