For The Public Good: Child Care As Economic Development

The Ideas & Solutions blog is intended to provide a forum for the discussion of child care and early education issues and ideas. We hope to provoke thoughtful discussions within the field and to help those outside the field gain a better understanding of priorities and concerns.

By Dr. Bradford Wiles, Associate Professor/Extension Specialist, Kansas State University

Originally published in the Spring 2021 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.

The argument for access to quality, affordable child care has historically been: “It’s for the children!” This is a moral proposition focusing on the benefits to the next generation. While virtually everyone involved in the child care field believes in this moral imperative, we know that this sentiment alone cannot adequately compete in the marketplace of ideas. Thus, we require both a shift in focus and a new approach to sharing the benefits of quality, affordable child care — beyond the well-documented advantages to cognitive and social-emotional development.

As public budgets across the U.S. have tightened and age demographics in local communities have changed, a new and different perspective on the importance of quality, affordable child care has emerged. This perspective views early education and care as drivers of a healthy population and economic growth.

What the Pandemic Taught Us
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each of us in different ways — draining us, hurting our families and friends, and affecting our collective and individual mental, physical, and emotional health. No one working during this pandemic can ignore the issue of child care.

  • Take a moment to reflect on how many times you have personally experienced one of the following:
    • You or a colleague had to leave a meeting to care for children.
    • You or a colleague had children in your meetings because of child care needs.
    • You or a colleague lost productivity because of child care needs.
    • You or a colleague could not go to work because of child care needs.

How much do you think these situations affected your individual, family, community, and employer’s productivity and health?

Problems with child care also affect parents’ long-term career prospects and advancement.

The Public Good
The term “public good” can be defined as a commodity or service — provided without the need for profit — to all members of a community. Governments and other organizations make investments for the public good to help their citizens thrive. The interstate highway system, begun in 1956 near Topeka, is a prime example of investing in the public good. While its original purpose was national defense, it resulted in goods moving safely and efficiently across the country. It increased economic productivity and lowered costs. We all benefit from the interstate highway system far beyond the money expended to create and maintain it.

  • Multiple parallels exist between the interstate highway system and child care. For one, economic productivity increases when communities and families have access to quality, affordable child care. Consider:
    • How many dollars in productivity and absenteeism are lost each day by adults simultaneously trying to care for children and work their full-time jobs?
    • How much safer are children in full-time care facilities designed to meet their needs?
    • How many more individuals, especially women, can enter the workforce and contribute to the local, state, and national economies while simultaneously supporting their families?
  • A three-pronged approach, conceived by Mildred Warner of Cornell University, illustrates how child care can be a public good for children, families, and economic development. This model includes:
    • The effect of child care on specific places, including local and regional economies
    • The effect on primary caregivers, as well as the social infrastructure supporting workers and their employers
    • The effect on children in child care settings, including investment in the development and education of the next generation of workers

Next, we dive deeper into the positive economic outcomes that could result from improved access to quality, affordable child care.

Increased Workforce Participation
Access to high-quality care for young children helps parents increase their employment and earnings in the immediate term, often resulting in dual-earner households. Indeed, employment is the most commonly cited reason that parents begin looking for child care. Due to shifting roles, responsibilities, and economic demands, families with young children were joining the workforce in record numbers before the pandemic. Analyses from our own needs assessments in Kansas have indicated both an extreme demand for and dramatic undersupply of child care, which is preventing women from entering or fully participating in the workforce in Kansas communities.

Problems with child care also affect parents’ long-term career prospects and advancement. A quarter of parents have reduced their work hours, turned down other job offers, or been prevented from pursuing further education and training. Other effects include parents rejecting promotions, reducing hours from full-time to part-time work, or quitting a job due to insufficient child care.

Reduced Absenteeism and Higher Productivity
Before the pandemic, U.S. businesses lost approximately $4.4 billion annually due to absent workers dealing with child care breakdowns.

  • A nationally representative survey of parents with children under the age of 3 found that:
    • Almost two-thirds of parents facing child care struggles leave work early, and more than half report being distracted at work or missing full days.
    • 86% of parents acknowledge that problems with child care have hurt their efforts or time commitment at work.
    • 20% report that they have been formally reprimanded.
    • 8% have been fired.
    • 7% have been demoted or transferred to a less desirable position, limiting their career opportunities.
    • Parents lost an average of two hours of work per week before the pandemic.
    • More than 60% of parents reported having to leave work early.
    • 50% reported being late, missing days of work, or being distracted at work due to problems with child care.

Workers have also indicated that child care investments have increased their motivation at work and their commitment to their employers. This lowers turnover, which costs employers an average of 33% of a worker’s salary.

Future Workforce Investment
Children entering school at age 5 are just a short 11 years from being able to fully work at age 16. Rural, agricultural economies rely on homegrown workforces even more than urban areas. With the agriculture sector’s population aging, rural communities in Kansas are in need of talent and labor to maintain and grow their current workforces. In recent years, real wages for agricultural jobs have risen faster than for the average worker in a nonfarm occupation.

Problems with child care significantly reduce how much time parents spend at work.

Problems with child care significantly reduce how much time parents spend at work.
Providing quality early education and care to children in these communities will better prepare them to enter the workforce. Such an investment will pay off not just in the near-term, but also in the decades to come.

Job Recruitment and Retention
Access to quality, affordable child care offers profound benefits for employers, as discussed above. Child care resources allow businesses to recruit and retain workers, especially in rural areas where available care is often more limited.
Furthermore, employers often focus on recruiting and retaining workers in their 20s and 30s — at the age when many begin forming families. Millennials in this age group will comprise 50% of the global workforce next year. The majority of American parents with very young children are now in the workforce; this is true of both single and married parents. In the U.S., approximately 14 million parents have children under the age of 3, and more than 11 million (78%) are working.

The Reasons Shouldn’t Matter
Access to quality, affordable child care benefits children, parents, and other primary caregivers, as well as the economies in which we live and work. The pandemic has laid bare how important child care is to productivity, absenteeism, workforce participation, and job retention. In the U.S., we invest in programs that we know will enhance the public good, and we often measure these in economic terms. Although this perspective doesn’t describe the full spectrum of benefits, it does provide the most compelling argument for public investment in child care.
Concerning ourselves with the motivations for investment in child care only creates division. We all want to do what’s right for the children, and it shouldn’t matter how we get there. If a community wants to invest in child care as an economic driver, is that any less noble than doing so for the benefit of children? They both lead to investment in early childhood education, helping us accomplish our shared goal.

We must recognize how important the issue of child care is — not just for parents, but also for those who work alongside parents or live in communities with young children. In other words, it matters to all of us.

Dr. Bradford Wiles focuses on building resilience and health in vulnerable families. Specifically, he uses a collaborative model of applied developmental research and outreach, tailoring his efforts to providing rural, low-income, ethnically and racially diverse families with the knowledge, skills, and decision-making strategies they need to change their lives. His research focuses on access to quality, affordable child care and building resilience in rural, low-income families.

  • Child Care Aware of Kansas

    Child Care Aware of Kansas connects everyone with a stake in child care — parents, child care providers, businesses, local and state leaders, and community members — to the information and ideas they need to take action. We provide opportunities, connections, and support for Kansans to envision what a better child care system can look like for them. Working within a network of Child Care Resource & Referral agencies, we also connect caregivers and providers to the information and support they need.