‘Child care is a public good’

‘Child care is a public good’

By Liz Bell and Katie Dukes

Education NC

As the world shut down in 2020, visitors escaped to the beautiful mountains of Ashe County. With its recreational tourism and wide open spaces, Ashe was one of a handful of counties in North Carolina where visitor spending increased during the first year of the pandemic, said Kitty Honeycutt, executive director of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce.

Yet the service industries could not keep up with that demand, Honeycutt said. And in the years since, it’s been a struggle to find workers — a challenge familiar to communities across the state. 

“It would be easier if we had more of a labor pool,” Honeycutt said. “And we would have more of a labor pool if we had more child care.”

Several businesses in the area expressed a willingness to provide stipends to employees or pay higher taxes to fund more child care access, in a survey by the Partnership for Ashe, the local Smart Start affiliate. 

Leaders across sectors in Ashe have created a task force and are planning creative solutions to the child care shortage. This spring, a training facility and lab school for early childhood teachers will open through a partnership with Appalachian State University. 

But the task force has found “there are so many edges to the problem,” Honeycutt said. Even with stipends from employers, many families can’t find or afford care. Many facilities are struggling to find teachers. And local investments like theirs can only go so far.

“That’s where the legislature has to step in and fund this for us, so that we can start to make a difference — a fundamental difference … and not just try to put a Band-Aid on it,” she said.

Despite the best efforts of communities throughout the state, the early care and education system remains in crisis. 

Without access to affordable child care, parents can’t run the businesses that provide the services upon which we all depend. Experts point to this as a cause of current worker shortages, the costs of which get passed to consumers in the form of longer lines and higher prices at the grocery store. 

Without early childhood care and education being high quality, we risk the health and well-being of the children who will become the next generation of workers. The effects of this are already being felt in high costs of health care, public safety, and public assistance programs. 

Experts across the state — from parents and educators to business leaders and policymakers — agree that nothing less than North Carolina’s economic future is at stake without investment in early care and education.

Investing in our future

Research shows that investing in the care and education of North Carolina’s youngest residents has a positive impact on two generations simultaneously, both in the short and long term. 

In the short term, the state’s economy is stronger when parents can earn family-sustaining wages knowing their children are safe and cared for while they work.

Those children benefit in the short term too. Evidence shows their brains thrive when they have caring adults around them who know how to support their development. 

In the long term, investing in our state’s infants and toddlers leads to their improved health, lower incarceration rates, better educational outcomes, and greater workforce readiness. 

The economic benefits from these short-term and long-term outcomes are lower burdens on the state’s systems and a higher tax base to pay for them. Investments in early childhood bring a higher return than investments at any other point in a lifetime, economists argue.

‘Moving for work’

A big part of Mike Cline’s job as the state demographer in the Office of State Budget and Management is to think about how the decisions policymakers make now will affect the state’s population and financial outlook in the future. 

In an interview with EdNC, Cline explained that while the fertility rate in North Carolina has held relatively steady over the last decade — about 60 live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 — the number of births annually has decreased.

This is due to the state’s aging population. 

“The first group of baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, and since that time, every year there’s been about 100,000 people turning age 65,” Cline said. “We expect that to continue over the next several years, so the fastest-growing population group is 65 years of age and older.”

An aging population can lead to a natural population decrease (more deaths than births). 

But according to census data, North Carolina’s population increased by 9.2% between 2010 and 2020, even while the number of births decreased by 4.5%.

Cline attributes this to migration, people moving into North Carolina and establishing lives here for themselves and their families. 

“Even though there are certainly people who move here for retirement, most of that is people moving for work, looking for opportunities,” Cline said. 

Migration accounted for 95% of population growth between July 2021 and July 2022, he said. And that will likely increase in the coming decades.

“Our latest projections show that between 2040 and 2050, all of our growth will be due to net migration,” Cline said.

That migration will happen only if the state remains attractive to workers and their families. Accessible, affordable, high-quality early care and education is an important factor in recruitment. 

“Certainly, you want to make sure that there is infrastructure available in the future to support all types of education,” Cline said. “I think there is an argument for making sure those opportunities are there to continue to attract folks.”

Keeping our economy going

A recent report from the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) shows the state’s economic future is “inextricably linked” to child care. 

According to the report, the limited accessibility of child care contributes to “divergent economic futures for families.”

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