As a business leader, I work hard to make a positive impact on my employees, clients, and community. My professional and personal goals are to better the lives of those around me—the people I call neighbors, family, and friends. The events of the past year have only intensified the importance of my goal.
I don’t need to explain how the global pandemic has altered all of our lives. The way we approach everything we do has changed profoundly. Our not-so-new normal has illuminated structural problems within our systems that, as we rebuild and return to some kind of normalcy, require innovation. One of those systems is child care—an industry that is critical to our economy and overall prosperity.
Habits are formed as a child. History has taught us that, and child care programs are imperative to start helping build those habits to become a strong citizen. They allow parents to go to work, assured that their children are in stimulating and safe environments. They give children the additional support they need to succeed in the short and long term. And they give businesses engaged and productive employees, ultimately making them successful. The strength of the child care industry is intimately tied to the strength of our economy. Unfortunately, both the economy and the childcare sector are in peril.
Even before the pandemic, the child care sector was already in crisis. A 2019 ReadyNation report found that the infant-and-toddler child care crisis costs our national economy $57 billion per year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. In Kentucky, there are approximately 273,000 children under age 5, and about two-thirds (68 percent) of these children have all of their available parents in the workforce. The cost of infant care in a Kentucky center averages $7,440 per year. This cost represents 36 percent of the median annual income of a single parent in Kentucky.
At the same time, half of all Kentucky residents live in child care deserts, an area in which there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. Shortages of care for infants and toddlers, and for parents who work non-traditional hours, are even more acute. The pandemic has only exacerbated the strain on this crucial sector, for several reasons.
Firstly, working parents’ needs changed dramatically during the pandemic. A lot of parents lost their jobs and no longer required, nor could afford child care. Some parents transitioned to working from home, and no longer needed traditional child care, but needed some sort of assistance with their kids. Other parents were working on the front lines and desperately needed care for their children. Child care providers encountered important but burdensome, constantly evolving safety protocols that proved costly—financially and otherwise. While they lost a detrimental amount of business, especially during the first months of the pandemic, they had to figure out how to stay open and serve their communities. Needless to say, this past year has been extremely challenging for parents, children, and child care providers.
Thankfully, Congress has taken significant steps to help. Lawmakers included $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, $24 billion for a child care stabilization fund, and changes to the child tax credit in the recently passed American Rescue Plan.
However, this allocation is just the first step. We now need to ensure that these funds are used strategically and creatively, to finance meaningful resources and supports for a system that is the key to repairing this country. If used with intention and innovation, these funds can start to help families in Kentucky and around the country by simultaneously increasing the supply and alleviating the high demand and pressure on child care providers.
As a working parent myself, I know how child care and the workforce have changed irrevocably this last year. The child care system will need innovation in order to repair the economy and accommodate the needs of working families. Lawmakers must continue to foster that innovation and prioritize making meaningful investments into the child care sector.
We can’t go back to the way things were, and, in some ways, that’s a positive development. We have an opportunity to improve the lives of families, child care providers, and children in Kentucky – and the rest of America. If we rise to the occasion, we can put our kids on the pathway to becoming strong citizens, better the country in the short term, and for years to come.
Ankur Gopal is the Founder and CEO of Interapt LLC. He is a ReadyNation member and resides in Louisville.