Child care is not just a personal matter; it’s an economic and societal concern that affects us all. Yet, child care is treated like the unwanted step-child to the public education system even though child care is the work that enables ALL other work and is equally, if not more, a public good because we all depend on it. In Washington State, like many other regions in the United States, the child care crisis has reached alarming levels. As parents struggle to find affordable, quality child care, the consequences ripple through our communities and economy. There is not one child care provider that is not experiencing the current state of the child care crisis in Washington State. Many are making the heart wrenching decision to close their child care centers while others keep hanging onto the hope that policy makers will do what it takes to implement solutions to address this pressing issue.
The State of Child Care in Washington
- Skyrocketing Costs: Washington State ranks near the top among states with the highest child care costs in the nation. For many families, these costs can be equivalent to, or even surpass, the cost of housing, making it extremely difficult for parents to make ends meet.
- Limited Availability: Access to quality child care is a major issue in Washington. Many parents face long waitlists or have to travel considerable distances to find suitable child care facilities, especially in rural areas.
- Workforce Challenges: The child care sector itself is strained. Low wages, limited benefits, and high turnover rates for child care providers contribute to an unstable system that cannot meet the growing demand.
- Child Care Regulations: The Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) has implemented a set of rules and regulations that are overly burdensome on child care providers. Many regulations are costly for child care providers and don’t necessarily improve health, safety, or quality.
- Disproportionate Impact on Women: The child care crisis disproportionately affects women, who still bear the majority of caregiving responsibilities. Without affordable and accessible child care, many women are forced to reduce their working hours or leave the workforce altogether.
- Failed Market System: Child care is a service industry with roots going back to slavery. Today, the child care industry is a failed market system. It relies on child care workers subsidizing the system by working for low wages and working families paying for the service fully recognizing that tuition fees charged don’t cover the cost of providing high quality child care.
Possible Solutions to Address Problems in the Child Care System
- Investing in Licensed Child Care and Family Home Centers: Similar to the stabilization grants that were given to child care providers during the pandemic, Washington State could provide, annually, child care stabilization funding to sustain the child care system while pursuing funding solutions at the federal level.
- Increasing Wages for Child Care Workers: Raising the wages and providing benefits for child care workers is crucial. This would not only attract and retain talented individuals in the field but also ensure that children receive the best care possible.
- Public-Private Partnerships: Encouraging public-private partnerships can help create more child care options. Employers could be incentivized to provide on-site child care facilities or offer subsidies to employees to help cover child care costs.
- Real Estate Developers: Property owners and developers could be incentivized to provide “free-rent” or significantly reduced rent to child care businesses. There are many benefits to leasing space to child care businesses, the least of which is having a very long-term tenant.
- Streamlined Licensing and Regulations: Regulatory reform is necessary for long-term sustainability of the sector. Simplifying the licensing and regulatory process for child care providers can make it easier for new facilities to open and expand capacity, thus increasing availability.
- Community Engagement: Engaging communities in discussions about child care and creating local task forces can help identify unique challenges and solutions tailored to specific regions within the state.
- Advocacy and Awareness: Raising awareness about the child care crisis and advocating for policies that support working families can lead to positive changes. In addition to family friendly policies, we need child care policies that remove barriers to incentivize child care providers to stay in business and encourage new providers to enter the field. Grassroots efforts, community organizations, and coalitions can play a pivotal role in this regard.
Possible Solutions to Assist Working Families
- Child Care Subsidies: Further expanding the Working Connections Child Care subsidy can make child care more affordable for low- and middle-income families. The state can help alleviate the financial burden on families by increasing the eligibility threshold and moving from state median-income to area median-income, while maintaining low parent co-pays.
- Capping Household Child Care Costs: As has been introduced to congress in the Child Care for Working Families Act, capping child care costs to no more than 7% of household income will have the greatest impact on child care affordability for families.
- Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs): Encourage employers to offer flexible spending accounts for child care expenses. Additionally, the federal government needs to significantly increase the child care spending allowance. These accounts allow employees to set aside pre-tax income to cover child care costs, reducing their overall tax burden.
- Extended Child Care Tax Deductions: Extend tax deductions for child care expenses to middle-income families, allowing them to deduct a larger portion of their child care costs when filing their taxes.
The Bottom Line
The child care crisis in Washington State is a multifaceted issue that requires immediate attention and comprehensive solutions. By addressing the high costs, limited availability, and workforce challenges, the state can work towards a future where all families have access to affordable, high-quality child care. It’s not only a matter of economic prosperity but also a matter of investing in the well-being and future success of our children and communities.
Washington State’s families already have the benefit of a high quality, mixed delivery child care system. This means families can choose the care option that works best for their family. Through collaboration, innovation, and sustained effort, Washington State can pave the way for a brighter future for all its residents.