County Update: What is child care worth?

Beth Melton
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Beth Melton

Recently, the Routt County Board of Commissioners had an important conversation about the child care crisis that our community is facing. Underscoring the importance of this issue, the meeting drew as many participants as a controversial land use decision or a public health order. Parents are scrambling to find care, leaving their jobs and even leaving the community. This is truly a crisis, and it is time for us to step up as a community to solve it.

Child care should be a top priority for every one of us, even if we do not have young children. When you go to the doctor, do you want the doctor or nurse preoccupied thinking about whether their child is safe? When you need to call 911, do you want a police officer or firefighter to have to call around to find care for their child before they come to your house? Do you think someone driving a snowplow should have to strap a car seat into the passenger’s seat? Where do you want your beloved waitress, cashier or hairdresser’s kids to be while they work?

In a county where at least 77% of children have working parents, according to Kids Count Report, child care is essential to keeping our economy running. In 2019, Ready Nation estimated that the child care crisis costs $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue annually in the U.S., and productivity problems cause employers to lose $12.7 billion annually due to the child care challenges their staff members face.

Just as importantly, this is not just “child minding.” Our early childhood teachers, whether they are watching newborns, preschoolers or school-age children, are trained professionals providing a safe, nurturing and supportive environment for our youngest citizens.

We want these children to grow up to be valuable members of our workforce and society, and there is a plethora of data demonstrating that the earlier we invest in high-quality environments and experiences, the greater that return on investment is. Quality early care and learning experiences reduce future special education, early parenthood and incarceration. Investments in early childhood pay for themselves, according to Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman.

We all know that we live in a place with a very high cost of living, and most families cannot afford to have a parent stay home, but many spend a large percentage of their pay on child care. The average daily tuition per child in an early learning center in Routt County is $65 to $68 per day; this translates into a whopping $15,600 to $16,320 per year for full-time care. Even at this eye-popping price, tuition falls far short of covering the cost to operate a child care facility, providers are still heavily reliant on grants to cover costs, and they are able to pay teachers only $14 to $23 per hour on average.

Unsurprisingly, our early childhood providers are suffering from the same challenges in hiring as all employers, and we’re seeing the impacts as centers are closing rooms, cutting back on days and even closing entirely. This makes parents desperate, which can put children at significant risk. If you have to choose between leaving a job that puts food on the table and taking a risk with a potentially unsafe child care situation, you’re left with an unwinnable dilemma.

It is time for our community to ask what child care is worth to us. How much do we value the health and safety of young children? How important is it to us that moms and dads are able to participate in our workforce? What do we want the community to look like in the future, and how much do we value that goal?

Beth Melton serves on the Routt County Board of Commissioners.

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