Of the nearly 24 million U.S. children under the age of six, 15 million kids have parents who are participating in the labor force. This begs the question: Do working parents have access to affordable, high-quality child care?
A new public opinion poll suggests the answer is no. More than 8 in 10 parents with children under the age of five indicated access to affordable, high-quality childcare is a serious problem. Also, 77 percent of participants indicated that childcare challenges caused negative impacts on their career or that of a family member.
The bottom line — availability and quality of our own workforce – is at stake without access to affordable, high-quality child care.
What can business leaders do to ensure working parents — and those unemployed or under-employed caregivers — have access to this necessity? A lot, actually. When it comes to child care, four out of five working parents say the business community should lead the way.
One of the most direct strategies is to offer employee subsidies to offset the high cost. About half of U.S. businesses offer such subsidies through dependent care assistance plans, which allocate up to $5,000 pre-tax.
Another option is onsite child care. Employers that offer this benefit are eligible for a 25 percent federal tax credit worth up to $150,000. That same credit is also available to employers that contract with community licensed child care providers. Few businesses opt for this strategy, as it carries a much heftier price tag and logistical lift particularly for small-to-midsize employers – albeit a viable option for some.
As business leaders, we can also influence community-wide efforts that tackle inadequate child care. In Mecklenburg County, NC, a public-private partnership is pursuing expansion of early learning opportunities. The plan includes clearing the child care subsidy waiting list (birth to five years), investing in voluntary, universal public pre-k (four years), implementing talent development strategies for early childhood education, developing a strong evaluation component tied to education investment, and funding strategies for early childhood education initiatives.
Business leaders can also make a difference by influencing state policy. In Alabama, business leaders played a prominent role in a state task force that recommended a 10-year campaign to enact public pre-k. Now in its eighth year, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program serves about 16,000 four-year-old children with plans to increase funding for all 4-year-olds in the future.
There are also policy proposals and funding streams at the federal level that could have a significant impact if enacted. For example, the dependent care tax credit available to parents represents only a tiny fraction of center-based child care cost, which is approximately $11,800 versus the average tax credit of $593.
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When employees struggle with child care challenges, employers are affected. I urge you to join me in advocating for a better child care system – albeit better fiscal and/or governmental support -- for our workforce. The future of our economy depends on it. So does the future of my business. And yours.
Ken Burdick is the CEO of WellCare Health Care Plans, a Trustee and a Business Champion for Early Childhood Education of the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED).