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By refusing to fund child care, we're failing our youngest citizens
Wisconsin's special session shines a light on a burgeoning national issue, with issues felt through the entire economy and political ecosystem, particularly with women and working families.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Bring up child care with any parent of young children, and you're bound to get an earful.
Costs can be prohibitively exorbitant, sometimes costing more than mortgage payments, rent, or public college education. Access can be limited, and sometimes unattainable, to the point where parents are planning when to have a child around the waitlist availability at their local child care center. A myriad of challenges surround the child care industry, from too-low pay for providers to too-high costs for parents and everything in between. It is, unequivocally, a broken system.
In many ways, it was the pandemic that put a renewed focus on child care, but challenges surrounding it have been mounting for some time. As millennials have two parents working, more than the generations that have preceded them, this has created a greater need for child care. And with the abysmally low levels at which this country funds child care, the industry has been reaching crisis levels long before 2020.
We do so little, as a nation, for our youngest Americans. That needs to change.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, early in her presidential campaign in 2019, put a spotlight on this issue like never before, proposing a new universal child care plan, funded by a “wealth tax.” While a proposal like that brought the issue of the child care crisis from one from a niche issue closer to the mainstream, the pandemic made this an issue impossible to avoid, as some moms and dads working from home navigated Zoom meetings with a little one on their lap, and another 700,000 parents with young children – predominantly women – left the workforce entirely in 2020.
Now in 2023, child care faces another existential challenge. Federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that helped the industry survive the pandemic is set to expire at the end of September, bringing another wave of uncertainty to an industry that’s endured more than its share of it over the past three-plus years.
A study by the Century Foundation estimates that this funding cliff will lead to the closure of more than 70,000 child care programs nationwide, and the elimination of roughly 232,000 jobs in the child care workforce, all of which would impact about 3.2 million children.
Challenges in child care ripple out through the entire economy, too. That study also shows that the millions of parents impacted will cost families $9 billion each year in lost earnings. As this cliff approaches, some parents will face a tough decision that’s not really a choice at all – keep the job or care for your child.
This issue is coming to a head this week in the state of Wisconsin, as a special session on workforce — with child care as the top issue — is set for today, Wednesday, Sept. 20.
Ever the national bellwether, Wisconsin has been embroiled in a partisan battle over funding child care for much of the past year. Tony Evers, the just re-elected Democratic governor, proposed an extension in funding for the “Child Care Counts” program, to the tune of $340 million, funded through the state’s multi-billion dollar budget surplus. Republicans who control the state legislature with large, gerrymandered majorities struck this proposal out of the budget entirely with a committee vote at 2:30 a.m.
The next day on the Capitol steps in Madison, Democratic lawmakers, child care providers, parents, and children held a rally, sounding the alarm on what it would mean to lose funding for “Child Care Counts,” a state program largely funded through federal pandemic relief, but with origins in its creation that pre-date the pandemic.
Republicans insult child care providers with ineffective bill package, disrespectful 'babysitting' comments
Corrine Hendrickson, the co-founder of WECAN (Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed) and the owner and operator of Little Explorers Family Child Care in New Glarus, Wis., said that without Child Care Counts funding, 1,000 of the state’s 4,400 total child care businesses “will be out of business within the next six to nine months.” Another estimate says discontinuing Child Care Counts could lead to 50% of child care centers across the state closing by February. Rising costs and accelerating closures could fall hardest on rural areas, where more than 70% of the state is already considered a “child care desert.”
Parents across the state will tell you they’ve seen notices from their provider about coming changes, be it to rising rates beyond their control, or outright closures.
Hendrickson said that because of Child Care Counts, a nearly two-decade trend of child care providers' closing finally stabilized, average wages for early care educators rose from $10.66 per hour to nearly $13 per hour, and providers were able to keep costs to parents down. The financial jolt has brought about stability not seen in this industry for quite some time.
Not unlike the Child Tax Credit — another successful family-focused policy that was allowed to unceremoniously expire at the federal level — this is a pandemic-era social program that has achieved demonstrable results.
But now without new funding, “the child care market in Wisconsin will collapse,” said Greta Neubauer, the State Assembly’s Democratic Minority Leader, at that June rally.
Part of that rally’s focus was on re-introducing this funding to the budget before it passed the legislature. That didn’t happen. Evers was able to use his powerful line-item veto powers in creative ways to make significant adjustments to the state budget, but was not able to re-add funding for child care, hence the call for a special session to, as he put it in the press release, “complete their work.”
The workforce component of this is key in Wisconsin, which currently has near record-low unemployment, at 2.9% in August. A workforce shortage is a significant problem here, after the Walker years in the 2010s brought about the state’s slowest population growth decade on record. But without stabilizing the child care industry — which some providers refer to as the “workforce behind the workforce” — already negative trends are going to inevitably accelerate.
Along with child care funding and other workforce development-focused initiatives specific to certain industries, the special session calls for the creation of a paid family and medical leave program, which Republicans also voted out of the budget this spring.
Last year, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Republican gubernatorial candidates, including eventual nominee Tim Michels, expressed support for the implementation of a paid leave policy – which drew support from some anti-abortion groups – but state Republicans found no interest in the following legislative session, despite the policy having a whopping 78% support in this divided state, per the Marquette University Law School Poll. They even went so far as to mute a Democratic lawmakers microphone in the middle of debate over paid leave.
The overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the strict abortion ban from 1849 that it triggered in Wisconsin, is inextricably linked to issues like paid family leave or child care. Republicans had every opportunity to adapt to this enormously consequential decision by promoting more pro-family policies, but, perhaps revealing how unserious the party is about supporting families through public policy to begin with. And with so many of these issues – paid leave, child care – invariably falling on women, it’s hard not to think they want to revert to the antiquated lifestyle of past generations, with women at home and men at work.
In response to Republicans voting to gut child care funding, advocates and providers consider organizing a strike
There’s a political component to this, too. The gender gap in Wisconsin is wide, with most women backing Democrats and most men backing Republicans. Women in suburban areas have been trending left in recent election cycles, in many ways tipping the scale for the statewide victories for Democrats and Democratic-backed candidates. By refusing to back policies like child care funding and paid leave, Republicans are at risk of losing the support of a generation of women, a generation of working families — perhaps even the Millennial generation entirely.
A meager set of bills widely criticized by child care professionals – which, at best, address fringe issues, and at worst, introduce problematic deregulation efforts that some say will make early care educators “want to quit (the industry) more, even” is not going to be the solution. I sat in on a Zoom call with WECAN members on Monday night, and one provider told one of the Republican co-sponsors of those bills that “We’re not even going to be here to deregulate” without Child Care Counts funding.
Wisconsin Democrats, to their credit, have been relentless on this issue. Gov. Evers has gone out of his way to support this issue, going out of his way to tour the state and meet with providers from all corners of Wisconsin. State legislative Democrats have made it arguably their top issue in budget cycle messaging. It’s another example of something Midwestern Democrats are doing at the state level that their national counterparts could take note of. And perhaps they’re getting there, with some Senate Democrats — including Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin — introducing the “Child Care Stabilization Act” at the 11th hour.
But with Republicans maintaining control of the Wisconsin State Legislature, this months-long push is almost certainly going to hit a wall once the special session begins. In this era of divided government, state Republicans have responded to the majority of special sessions called by the governor by not engaging with it at all. They have gaveled-in and gaveled-out of several special sessions since 2019, with no debate on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to Medicaid expansion to education to funding to abortion rights. By Wednesday afternoon, child care and workforce challenges will likely be added to that growing list.
That shouldn’t happen again. Not now. Our children deserve better. Families deserve better. As other states, like our neighbors in Minnesota, make real investments in child care, our state deserves not to be left behind.
This country, too, needs to do a whole lot more for our youngest citizens and for working families. The nation’s declining birth rate is a real problem, but it’s really no surprise given the fact that on average, a hospital birth costs $4,500 with insurance, and national investments in our youngest people are dismal. We support children in K-12 schools, but we do next to nothing for kids in their first few years of life. This must change.
What needs to change in the immediate future for Wisconsin is that Republican leaders need to stop being ideologically rigid and against any funding associated with the pandemic, and support the pragmatic solution in continuing to fund the Child Care Counts program and push the industry off a cliff and have those ripple effects devastate the state’s economy. There is a demonstrably effective short-term solution in front of us, and it is imperative that we first take that route, and then start to get to a point where we are not trying to avert shutdowns and fiscal cliffs and general calamity and finally start making real investments in the lives of working families.
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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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