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July 7, 2020

OpEd: We can’t allow the public health emergency to worsen DC’s child care crisis

Shared adversity can bring a community together, and I’m happy to see that greater Washington is responding in solidarity in the face of both racial inequality and the immense public health challenge of COVID-19. 

These two problems are intertwined. In addition to its tragic human cost, the pandemic has elevated the risk that existing inequality of opportunity in the District may worsen.

Here in DC, we face significant opportunity gaps from ward to ward. For example, as of 2018, at least 12% of children were living in poverty in six of DC’s eight wards. However, in wards 7 and 8, that rate exceeded 39%. Ward 8 also has the highest number of children under age 5 and an infant mortality rate that is more than double the national average.

This tells us that, when it comes to giving people the tools to develop and build their talents, we need to start early. Thankfully, the city made progress on this front by passing the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act of 2018, an important stride toward making sure that all young children have access to quality early childhood programs.

However, without supporting the act with additional measures and meaningful investments, the opportunity gaps that plague our city will persist — and will do so in a way that impacts young people’s educational prospects and their future career prospects.

One of these challenges is the lack of access to affordable, high-quality child care.

Even before the pandemic, our nation was in the midst of a child care crisis, as demonstrated in a recent ReadyNation report. The report found that the lack of high-quality, affordable child care for infants and toddlers (children age 0 to 3) exacts a heavy toll on working families and our economy, costing our economy an incredible $57 billion per year. The reason this figure is so high is the dramatic, negative impact that the crisis has on productivity, tax revenue and workers’ earnings.

And it’s no wonder why. Like many places around the country, DC has far more infants and toddlers than it does available high-quality child care. At the same time, the average cost of child care in the District is more than the average price of public, in-state college tuition in most places around the country.

The child care crisis is also a two-generation problem. As working parents scramble to find care, children often wind up in less-than-ideal early childhood settings. Those experiences create impacts that society won’t feel until these children grow into their teenage years or adulthood. 

Without access to high-quality learning and care during this critical time, a child’s chances of being “kindergarten-ready” diminish. That deficit on day one of elementary school may persist for the duration of the child’s educational career, which, in turn, leads to those opportunity gaps I mentioned a moment ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made funding child care infrastructure even more urgent. Most child care providers are fundamentally small businesses, and many of them face economic hardship, even closure. 

As a journalist, entrepreneur, business owner and longtime advocate for equity and women’s issues, I understand that these topics are inextricably tied to the child care industry. Providers now feel unprecedented pressures on their own bottom line, and the families they serve are enduring immense hardships. Therefore, we must commit to supporting, strengthening and maintaining the child care infrastructure now, so that the existing child care crisis isn’t worsened by our current health emergency. 

There are more than 26,500 infants and toddlers under age 3 in DC, but only about 7,600 licensed child care slots. COVID-19 has the potential to make this situation even more dire, with some providers having no choice but to close absent sufficient support for the child care sector. Investments to preserve existing slots and help make up this shortfall will pay dividends to greater Washington now and in the future. Likewise, funding that helps parents navigate a system that costs, on average, $2,020 per month per infant will help ease that imposing financial burden on lower-income families.

Protecting the child care sector is critical. Investments to do so will make businesses and working parents more productive today, and help ensure that the next generation of Washingtonians will grow up better prepared to leverage their talents and build the future we all want — a stronger and more equitable community over the long run.

This OpEd was written by Sheila Brooks, Ph.D., founder, president and CEO of SRB Communications. It was originally published here by The DC Line, a nonprofit media organization dedicated to covering DC local news.

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