Innovation born in Wisconsin is tackling two of the most daunting barriers that workers and businesses face in today’s economy: child care and transportation.
The value of both is becoming apparent to businesses today. Accessible, affordable child care and convenient transportation options are vital to attract and retain workers. Beyond that, top-notch child care can help ensure the quality of the future workforce by enhancing the development of young minds.
While much needs to be done, public-private cooperation is leading to innovative solutions. Experts discussed the challenges on Oct. 23 at the 2023 Wisconsin Economic Summit, hosted in Appleton by WEDC.
Child care is key to Wisconsin’s high labor participation rate—but cost and access to child care remain a problem.
Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said research shows young children need quality child care to provide safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.
“Someone’s got to be crazy about that kid and have the ability to show it,” Navsaria said.
“If that parent doesn’t have health insurance, if their physical or mental health needs aren’t getting met, if they’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet and they’re barely home because that’s what they need to make to pay rent,” they’re not going to be at their best as parents, he said. Likewise, it can interfere with providing top-quality child care “if that early childhood educator is worried about keeping their center open, and how they are going to make payroll.”
He said studies have shown that between $4 and $9 is returned for every $1 invested in early childhood programs.
Daria Hall, policy initiatives advisor for the state Department of Children and Families, said child care makes a profound difference in the lives of children. With high-quality care, they are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be addicted or arrested, and likely to have better health outcomes, she said.
And while over half of Wisconsinites live in areas designated as child care deserts—areas in which at least there are three young children for every available child care spot, with high prices often making care inaccessible for many—government programs are trying to soften the blow.
“The annual cost of care for one infant is more than a year’s worth of in-state tuition at a four-year college,” Hall said. “Think about the impacts of these costs, particularly when families are the youngest and they are earning the least they’re going to be earning. You think about college and we’re saving for decades for college, and these are costs that hit right as these families are starting to form.”
Hall said a program called Childcare Counts provides subsidies to help cut the cost of child care for 16,000 low-income families if they are working in job training or in school. The program, seen as a stopgap, got a boost when Governor Tony Evers allocated another $170 million to it through June 2025.
Another program, called Partner Up, supports businesses that offer their staff members free child care spots. The businesses pay one-quarter of the cost, with the state picking up the rest. And a program called Dream Up brings local communities together and provides $75,000 in assistance to assess their needs in expanding child care access.
Access to affordable, high-quality child care has a ripple effect that extends to those children’s classmates, said Tamara Johnson, executive director of Milwaukee’s Malaika Early Learning Center.
The child with access to care becomes “a nurturer,” she said. “They become the peer who’s able to help another scholar in their classroom and who gives a lot of that social, emotional, social emotional skill,” she said. “Those young children turn into young adults. And so … what we do now with those children that are falling through those gaps plays out in our future workforce.”
Transportation is a key factor in allowing workers to access and keep good jobs, especially in a state with large urban centers and sprawling rural areas. Sometimes, it’s a multi-layered challenge, with getting kids to child care and parents to work.
WEDC awarded a Workforce Innovation Grant to a Milwaukee County-Waukesha County partnership to remove transportation barriers for workers. Eight partners of Mobilise expanded the FlexRide program, which positions child care centers at “mobility hubs” that serve as pickup spots for FlexRide riders.
“We often see on the news about those super-commuters, the people that go for two hours a day and walk for miles,” said Dave Steele, executive director of Mobilise. “Oftentimes, the news story ends with the coworkers pull their money together and get that person a car. And when I watch those news stories, I think, well, we really shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Amanda Payne, senior vice president for public policy for the Waukesha County Business Alliance, said the partnership is essential to maintain a strong workforce.
“Our employers have a huge need” for more workers, she said. “There are lots of available positions, lots of good positions. And so, for us, the flexible, on-demand transportation solution has been key.”
In largely rural Waupaca County, a Workforce Innovation Grant also funded a program called Catch-A-Ride, a 24/7 ride share program that brought together government, communities, businesses, and nonprofits to tackle the transportation problem.
“We see these disparities in the communities that we live in,” said Valerie Lefler, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Feonix-Mobility Rising, one of the project’s partners. “If you want to improve your economic situation, you have to be able to get to a job or get to health care or get to resources. … Without transportation, we create walled gardens of opportunity.”