Iowa suffers from a child care shortage. It’s a crisis that not only threatens our mothers’ and children’s well-being, but also the statewide economy.
The state has lost about 40 percent of its registered child care providers in the past five years, according to research by the Iowa Women’s Foundation. That has helped create a shortfall of more than 350,000 child care spots, with the largest service gaps often found in rural communities known as “child care deserts.”
When families don’t have affordable and accessible child care, one parent is often forced to stay home and forego full-time employment. It’s usually the mother, which further hampers women’s professional lives and deprives everyone else of their valuable contributions to the workforce.
That’s one of the reasons Iowa has a worker shortage. Thousands of open positions go unfilled, slowing businesses’ growth.
The Building Community Child Care Solutions is a statewide project led by the Iowa Women’s Foundation, with the goal of developing innovative solutions to address child care shortages. Organizers are hosting community meetings across the state to glean input from parents and businesses, including a Child Care Solutions Summit in Iowa City this week, which follows a similar session in Linn County last month.
Through conversations with stakeholders, leaders have developed a set of strategies to bring Iowa’s child care offerings in line with known needs:
• Build new and expand existing child care centers
• Support child care entrepreneurs
• Encourage local businesses to expand or add child care benefits, including in-house care
• Work with community colleges to inform and educate the next generation of providers
• Support before- and after-school programs
• Create viable child care options for second- and third-shift workers
Achieving these goals will take require financial investments, especially from the businesses who would benefit from a workable child care system. One organization in Northern Iowa offers a promising model.
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In 2016, the Fort Dodge nonprofit Linking Families and Communities brought together local organizations and businesses to fund a study to identify solutions to child care needs in its service area — Calhoun, Pocahontas and Webster Counties.
One solution emerging from that process was the need to expand child care facilities. Linking Families and Communities became the first recipient of the Iowa Women’s Foundation’s Child Care Solutions Fund grant, which funded design work for a forthcoming center expansion and a possible new center.
That’s an encouraging example of independent organizations voluntarily working together to come up with meaningful solutions. But meeting the enormous challenges presented by the child care shortage also will likely require action from state and federal governments — less regulation, and more funding.
Many providers point to the federal Child Care Development Block Grant Act as one cause of insufficient supply. The program provides financial assistance for child care services, but also imposes regulations on providers, which became much more stringent after the legislation was reauthorized in 2014.
Advocates suggest loosening those rules as a way of reducing centers’ business expenses and potentially allowing new centers to open. It would also incentivize unregistered providers — which are not included in the state’s tally of available child care spots — to join the regulated system. Policymakers should take up careful consideration of deregulation while maintaining health and safety protections.
Smarter regulation alone would not solve the problem, however. Government officials also must consider spending more taxpayer money to support young families.
Several Democrats running for president have offered proposals to expand federal support for child care providers, including several who would pursue universal access for all families. Politicians also are discussing important related topics like paid maternity leave and preschool accessibility.
Those investments could pay for themselves over the long-run — they would allow more parents to work, and also prepare the youngest generation of Americans for success in their educations and careers.
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What’s clear is that we are all worse off when child care is inaccessible for so many. A society that does not adequately support its children has little chance of reaching its potential.
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