Child care crisis requires creative thinking, new ideas - Salish Current
July 10, 2024
Child care crisis requires creative thinking, new ideas
Leah Wainman

The Healthy Children’s Fund levy passed in November 2022 is aimed to address Whatcom County’s shortage of available child care placements and the cost of access to those. In an archive image, preschool teacher Julie Flores presents a lesson at the James Street Child Development Center. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current file photo)

July 10, 2024
Child care crisis requires creative thinking, new ideas
Leah Wainman

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: Investing in working families will improve the future for Whatcom County

In the past few years, working-class families have had to bear a host of increased costs — and for those of us with young children, child care costs are only getting higher. 

Here in Whatcom County, the cost of full-time child care for a two-year-old is 25% ($20,640) of the household annual median income. Only five other states had a higher average annual cost for this type of care. Washington is ranked 9th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for most expensive infant care.

The high cost of care means that more and more families are struggling to afford the basics like housing, food and transportation — all of which also continue to get more expensive. Many families cannot build the savings they may need for a rainy day.

Mine knows these challenges firsthand. Just last month, we got an email that our three-year-old daughter’s child care program needed to raise costs once again — this time by 30% — in order to maintain their employees’ health insurance. That will cause us real strain. 

Still, I’m grateful we can cover her child care costs at all, and thus keep her spot in a program she loves and keep our jobs. Many families can’t, and there have been seasons when my family has struggled enormously to afford the child care we need to work. 

Rising child care costs cause financial instability to working families and disrupt wealth growth and upward mobility. Recent research demonstrates that families with children earn less money than families without children. In addition, the cost of child care dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects the finan­cial well-being of women, sin­gle par­ents, par­ents in pover­ty, fam­i­lies of col­or and immi­grant families, exacerbating gender- and race-based wage gaps caused by structural racism and sexism. 

For all these working families, the end result is the same — if you can’t access care, you can’t go to work and that, more than any other single factor, undercuts your ability to be self-sufficient. And this burden is not isolated to working families: Researchers estimate the child care crisis cost­s American companies about $122 bil­lion a year in lost earn­ings, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and tax rev­enue.

Fortunately, our county has a unique and timely opportunity to address these systemic challenges, support families living in poverty and prevent other families from falling into poverty. In November 2022, Whatcom County voters approved a tax on homeowners to help address the child care crisis. Under the terms of the new law, the County receives almost $10 million in revenue each year for the next 10 years. Two years of revenue are already in hand — about $20 million!

Now, we must ensure these dollars are allocated where they are most needed — increasing wages for child care providers and providing higher childcare subsidies to all working families. 

Child care providers play an essential role in our community, but the sector is facing a severe staffing shortage due to low wages. Many could earn more money if they worked at a fast food restaurant. Increasing wages for these valuable workers would help them stay in the field, lift many out of poverty and help stabilize our county’s child care programs, which in turn would help families find quality care.

The new levy funds should also be used to reduce child care costs for all families. While many government programs rightly focus on families facing the most severe hardship, the child care crisis impacts families at many different income levels. There remains a wide gap between those who qualify for subsidies and those who can truly afford the high cost of care. 

Today’s child care crisis requires creative thinking and new ideas, like providing families with subsidy support that makes child care expenses do not exceed 7% of their income. That would save a typical Washington family with an infant $9,159 per year on child care costs. That’s income that could cover the basics, be saved, or be spent stimulating the local economy. 

Our working tradespeople, artisans, and professionals are invaluable to Whatcom County and an important taxpayer base. However, they are generally not fabulously wealthy; they pay their own child care costs out of pocket, and they feel the bite of increased taxes. 

Unless Whatcom County invests in our citizens — single parents, nurses, preschool teachers, public defenders and others who make our community strong — they will make economic decisions that are sensible for them and move. Using the revenues raised through the new children’s levy to stabilize our child care system is the way to start.

— By Leah Wainman

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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