VOICES: Child care is a smart investment in kids, families and businesses

Shannon Jones, Warren County Commissioner and former state lawmaker.
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Shannon Jones, Warren County Commissioner and former state lawmaker.

Warren County Commissioner Shannon Jones is president and CEO of Groundwork Ohio. She is also a former Ohio state legislator.
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Warren County Commissioner Shannon Jones is president and CEO of Groundwork Ohio. She is also a former Ohio state legislator.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Ohio is facing a workforce crisis today and into the future. Businesses can’t find and keep enough employees. Parents with young children are struggling to balance work and family amid a pandemic. Too many children are starting kindergarten woefully behind, leading to a lifetime of problems — first in school, then on the job and in life.

To recover from the pandemic recession and compete in a 21st-century economy, we must invest in programs that support the workforce of today while preparing the workforce of tomorrow. At a time when child care has become one of the top barriers to families returning to work and Ohio’s youngest children are not ready for school, quality child care is an essential investment in our children, families and economy.

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If you follow the brain science, you know that learning starts well before kindergarten. From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops faster than at any other time in their life. Before a child enters kindergarten, their brain is already 90% developed.

Yet policymakers have long overlooked the importance of early childhood education, especially for Ohio’s most vulnerable children. The consequences of this failure are clear: Only 41% of Ohio children start kindergarten ready to learn. Fewer than 24% of Black students and fewer than 27% of all students experiencing poverty in Ohio are ready for kindergarten.

This matters because kindergarten readiness is one of the best predictors of how well someone will do in school and, eventually, on the job. Children who start kindergarten behind often stay behind for the rest of their lives. Given that so many children are unprepared for kindergarten, it’s no surprise that too few Ohioans have the skills and credentials needed for today’s in-demand jobs.

We must invest in quality child care to provide our youngest learners with the educational experiences they need to prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. Children who attend quality early learning programs are better prepared for kindergarten, and are more likely to graduate high school, continue their education and be career-ready as adults.

Of course, parents are and will always be a child’s first and most influential teacher. But the reality is most families need child care because most parents are working to provide for their families. In Ohio, nearly 70% of children under the age of 6 grow up in families where their parents work outside the home. Two-thirds of mothers with children under age 3 are in the workforce.

When parents don’t have access to quality affordable child care, they cannot work. Even before the pandemic, parents struggled to stay on the job because they could not find reliable child care.

Now, an already untenable situation has become dire. The child care crisis, accelerated by the pandemic, has forced parents with infants and toddlers out of the workforce in droves. This affects parents’ ability to provide for their families and hurts the bottom line of business. Even before the pandemic, American businesses lost an estimated $12.7 billion each year because of their employees’ child care challenges.

Investing in quality child care is the right thing to do for children, families and businesses. It’s also the smart thing to do for taxpayers. A recent study by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center found that expanding access to quality child care in Ohio would generate a 10% annual return on public investment – saving taxpayers money by reducing the need for public health, criminal justice and other interventions throughout a child’s lifetime. Either we invest now, or we pay more later.

Ohio cannot address its workforce challenges without recognizing the crucial role of quality child care in empowering parents to work and preparing children to thrive as adults. Investing in quality child care benefits us all — children, families, businesses and taxpayers. It’s time for our leaders to step up and do what’s so obviously right.

Shannon Jones is the president and CEO of Groundwork Ohio, a nonpartisan public-policy research and advocacy organization that champions high-quality early learning and healthy development of children prenatally to age 5.