Good morning, Chairman Snyder and members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to be here with you to discuss the importance of child care with regard to Wisconsin’s economy.
As the state’s leading economic development organization, WEDC wants to make sure that as Wisconsin emerges from the pandemic, we are best positioned to get everyone who can work, back to work.
We especially want to make sure that we are bringing Wisconsinites off the sidelines to help our businesses get the workforce they need to grow.
The reality is that the lack of affordable, accessible, quality child care is a direct obstacle to that goal, and it’s hurting businesses across the state.
If you are a business seeking workers, as so many of our Wisconsin businesses are, you cannot find workers who are ready to fully engage in your business if they can’t find child care.
Simply put, a parent cannot fully participate in the economy if they can’t find child care. Some parents are fortunate enough to have family members or others who can care for their kids, but just one disruption to that routine can create a crisis.
In addition, at WEDC, we also work hard to attract people to move to Wisconsin – we call it “talent attraction” and we tell the story of how wonderful Wisconsin is to raise a family – its why I moved here 18 years ago.
But if you are a parent considering moving to Wisconsin, the lack of child care is often a major hurdle. In my own town, a doctor was not able to move their family here because child care was not available for the two parent working family.
In Wisconsin, from our rural communities to our urban centers, we have a severe shortage of child care that holds us back and makes us less attractive and less competitive. 54% of all Wisconsin children and 68% of rural children live in a child care desert.
One of the lessons we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is how interconnected our economy is, often in ways we hadn’t considered before. For example, public health is critical to keeping workers and customers safe in the workplace. And broadband isn’t a luxury, but an essential tool for work, school, and health.
Early care and education, or ECE, is one of those essentials. Both before and after the pandemic hit, I’ve heard one consistent message from business and community leaders – we need workers. And they recognize child care and the workforce issue are deeply interconnected.
In one conversation with a CEO of one of our major companies in an urban area, we discussed the need to keep women in the workforce. In his opinion, a company that wants to grow must hire women. National studies have shown the move to online schooling and the loss of affordable care have cost millions of women their jobs since the start of the pandemic, wiping away a generation’s worth of economic and professional gains.
In December alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 140,000 jobs were lost nationwide with data revealing a shocking gender gap: Women accounted for all the job losses, losing 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000. These losses have hit disadvantaged communities like those of color, low-wage workers, and rural workers especially hard.
In another conversation with a CEO, this rural-based company is considering starting its own in-house child care to deal with the challenge of rural child care “deserts.”
During community listening sessions for the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity, I heard again and again from rural leaders that they can’t attract young families without sufficient child care in their communities. And local employers said without this essential service, they can’t get or keep the workers they need.
Of course, this particular CEO I mentioned is not prepared to run a child care center inside the company. As I am sure you will hear today, providing child care is a unique and difficult business. It is not just dropping the kids at the sitter. No CEO of a manufacturing company or food processing company is ready for infants and toddlers.
It’s important to keep in mind that in many cases, child care providers are also businesses, so increasing worker pay, encouraging professional development and creating a sustainable business model for their operations is also a gain for their businesses.
This is a business that must provide quality care with much regulation for children of several age groups, and provide living wages and benefits to retain skilled workers, all while dealing with parents that are challenged to pay for what can often amount to the equivalent of a mortgage payment or more.
This is a complex problem – child care is necessary for many families for a short time in the family’s lifecycle. The child care provider has to estimate the right number of slots to meet the demand, which ebbs and flows. A business needs its workers every day, and often in our manufacturing businesses, for multiple shifts during a day – there is often no child care for second and third shifts. Young families are often trying to make ends meet, child care providers are struggling to provide sustainable wages and benefits to their employees, and the owners often go without their own pay, and businesses need consistency.
Just before the pandemic, I attended a meeting of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative. A person in the audience challenged Wisconsin to be bold, to consider making child care a priority – even suggesting, “What if child care were free?”
For the record, I’m not suggesting we make child care free. What I am suggesting is that we view child care as a public good, like roads, police and libraries. Not only for the children to have safe and quality education and care from the earliest time, but also for the Wisconsinites who want to come off the sidelines, and the employers who want to hire them.
Now more than ever, Wisconsin’s work to address pervasive challenges around access, quality and affordability within the child care system are imperative to helping Wisconsinites, Wisconsin businesses and the state move forward.
To come back to where I started – there is a direct correlation between Wisconsin’s economy and Wisconsin’s childcare system. For the economy to be healthy, resilient, strong and growing, we must create a system that works for the children, the parents, the providers, and our businesses.