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In Minnesota and nationally, our youngest learners need greater support

Children aged zero to 3 are in the midst of unique, irreplaceable brain development. That means that the supports they have — or lack — during this time can have outsized importance.

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MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Art Rolnick

The connections between the early childhood years and our local, state, and national economies run deeper and stronger than most people realize.

I’ve been telling that to anyone within earshot for over 15 years, as my colleagues can attest. My background is in economics, but I realized a long time ago that America’s economic fortunes are unmistakably linked with its willingness to invest in high-quality, early supports that improve short- and long-term outcomes for our youngest learners.

Unfortunately, a pressing, national crisis provides a vivid example of just how devastating the connection between early childhood and our economy can be when not properly addressed. In Minnesota and around the country, working parents of infants and toddlers are struggling to find affordable, high-quality child care. That struggle leaves them distracted at work, stressfully dividing their attention between their young ones and their careers.

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The problem isn’t complicated on its face: Child care is too scarce and too expensive. Over one-fourth of Minnesotans live in child care “deserts,” which are areas in which there are at least three times as many children as there are licensed child care slots. At the same time, infant care in a Minnesota child care center costs an average of $15,704 per year. That’s substantially more than, say, public college tuition, which is “only” $11,302 per year.

The scenario of limited access and unaffordability repeats millions of times over throughout the United States, costing working parents opportunities for higher wages and promotions as they grapple with child care, and costing our economy dearly in the process.

recent report from the nationwide, bipartisan business-leader group ReadyNation shines light on the scope of the damage from the infant-and-toddler child care crisis. The crisis costs taxpayers $7 billion each year because of reduced tax receipts. It costs businesses $13 billion per year due to reduced productivity and higher hiring and training expenses. It costs working parents $37 billion per year, thanks to diminished career prospects, lower earnings, and costs associated with finding alternative work and child care arrangements.

That’s $57 billion in total economic damage done. Each and every year.

Yet, the tangible impacts we can measure today may not even be the worst of it. More insidious are the potential effects on infants and toddlers themselves.

Children aged zero to 3 are in the midst of unique, irreplaceable brain development. That means that the supports they have — or lack — during this time can have outsized importance.

Deficits can begin from birth, and, if we want the next generation to have the best shot to be educated, productive members of the future workforce, we have to begin investing in high-quality supports from birth as well.

Here in Minnesota, lawmakers must do more for working parents of infants and toddlers by expanding access to Early Learning Scholarships to serve more children from low-income families.  Not only do these scholarships help close achievement gaps for kids who need that help most, but they also give parents the ability to choose from a variety of programs, including options that match full-day, full-year work schedules. Lawmakers should also consider economic incentives to bring more providers to rural communities to help reduce child care deserts.

Because of the significant effect of the child care crisis on Minnesotan working families, I also recently joined 50 senior business executives from around the country to sign a letter asking Congress to take immediate action at the federal level.

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The message there, as here, is straightforward: I urge Congress to continue the recent trend of strong Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) funding.  CCDBG funding helps lower-income parents afford child care while holding jobs that lead to long-term family self-sufficiency. In 2018, Congress nearly doubled federal CCDBG funding, a historic and encouraging investment. I hope Congress will continue the CCDBG funding prioritization it has demonstrated in the last two years, while also exploring new, innovative methods of enhancing child care options throughout the United States.

For the sake of Minnesota’s working families, our current and future workforce, and, most important, the well-being of infants and toddlers, I urge Congress to combat the child care crisis by continuing to invest in the Child Care Development Block Grant.

Art Rolnick is a Senior Fellow, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, former SVP & Director of Research, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and a member of ReadyNation.

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