Nothing could help Idaho’s working families, businesses and children more than propping up the state’s struggling child care network.
Details of Gov. Brad Little’s plan to do just that won’t emerge until the governor issues his State of the State address to the Legislature early next year. But give Little points for reaching the right conclusion.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, half of Idaho families were living in child care deserts. Some rural communities lacked child care centers. Even in metropolitan areas, however, the capacity fell short of meeting the need.
With the onset of COVID-19 early in 2020, workers stayed home and child care operators suffered the brunt. Then as the economy reopened, those operators simply could not find enough staff willing to work for what they were able to pay.
At one point last year, more than 200 Idaho child care centers had closed their doors.
The vicious cycle continues.
Responding to the labor market, businesses are raising employee compensation — because they have the ability to pass along those increased costs to consumers.
Not so with child care centers. Already operating on tight margins, they lack price elasticity. For many families, the cost of child care rivals that of housing. Increase child care fees to cover higher wages and parents may conclude it’s less expensive to quit working and stay home.
All of which now has the attention of Idaho’s business community. The percentage of working age Idahoans — those 16 years old and older — has dropped to 62.5 percent from 71 percent in 1998.
“If we want to get the participation rate up, (child care) is something we’re going to have to address,” Little said.
Although it would require legislative approval, the state can draw on about $50 million still remaining from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 plus another roughly $70 million in child care stabilization grants.
But getting the Legislature to go along is never guaranteed.
Last year, a conservative uprising killed a three-year federal grant that would have extended $6 million a year to early childhood education efforts, including a collaborative program in the Kendrick-Juliaetta area. This occurred after members of Idaho’s congressional delegation backed the plan and President Donald Trump signed it into law.
And it looked like the same thing might happen to plans to distribute another $33.7 million in federal funds to child care operators. After failing by a 42-27 vote in the House, a tweaked measure eventually passed by a 50-15 vote in that chamber. It then cleared the Senate 33-2. Among those who still voted against it was Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird.
With that money, child care operators can offer staffers a $300 a month retention stipend and rely on up to $5,000 a month to pay operating costs.
The challenge facing whatever proposal Little makes is finding a way to recruit more staff members into the profession. And while that’s adequate for the immediate future, what ails child care in Idaho and elsewhere is a structural problem: What happens when and if the subsidies expire?
So passage of President Joe Biden’s reconciliation package — and its ongoing support for child care — is vital. At the same time, businesses will have to step up.
However politically pragmatic it is for the governor to rely on an economic argument to advance the interests of his state’s youngest children, it has the virtue of being true. — M.T.