Businesses say it constantly. “We have jobs. We can’t find anyone to fill them.”

Now we know why. Pennsylvania’s child care system is in crisis. Parents of young children want to work, but child care is unaffordable, inaccessible, or of poor quality.

These parents can’t take the jobs offered, or they can’t work to their full abilities. Unfortunately, we all pay the consequences. Pennsylvania’s economic development is poorer by several billion dollars due to lost revenue, lost income, and lost potential.

We are talking about a large number of Pennsylvanians. Among the 796,000 parents with young children in the Pennsylvania workforce, more than half struggle to find child care that’s affordable, accessible, or of quality.

What’s going on? It’s simple. Child care teachers, the “workforce behind the workforce,” can’t afford to be child care teachers. The talented people who give our youngest children learning experiences that last a lifetime are paid, on average, $12.43 an hour. Most are college-educated, but they earn $25,844 a year.

That’s lower than the cost of living in Columbia, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, and Union counties, and every other county in Pennsylvania. In Columbia County, child care wages cover only 60 percent of what it takes to pay for the daily basics.

They’d be better off working at the local convenience store. And they do. Nearly half of child care teachers say they plan to leave the profession within five years.

That exodus will widen a yawning gap. Today, 4,000 child care positions in Pennsylvania are unfilled, contributing to a monstrous waitlist of 35,500 children not in quality child care.

Parents who can’t afford or find reliable child care must link together relatives, neighbors, and friends in tenuous arrangements. When one “link” has a sudden problem — an illness, a broken-down car, a family emergency — the entire chain snaps.

That’s when parents can’t be good employees and good parents at the same time. Naturally, the children come first, but that means that parents are late for work, leave early, don’t show, or are distracted on the job.

As child care challenges snowball, research shows that one-third of parents must reduce their work hours or switch from full-time to part-time jobs. Many are forced to quit or have been reprimanded, demoted, or fired. Many others must turn down promotions and training opportunities that would have helped them get ahead in the world.

These distressing facts about child care teachers and working parents come from two recent reports examining the post-pandemic state of child care in Pennsylvania, from the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, Ready Nation Pennsylvania, and Start Strong PA.

Because of their research, we know that the child care crisis costs Pennsylvania $6.65 billion a year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. The problem has grown much worse since pre-COVID 2019, when child care problems cost Pennsylvania $3.47 billion each year.

It’s a lose-lose-lose situation. Working parents lose $4.1 billion total in parental income lost or not earned. Businesses lose $1.52 billion in turnover and reduced revenue. Taxpayers lose $1.03 billion in revenue due to parents’ lower incomes, less paid in taxes, and weakened economic growth.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed child care investments in the 2023-24 state budget represent a starting point, but this situation demands progress, not stasis. Policymakers across the aisle need to hear from us with a unified voice of support for increased access to affordable, quality child care. Investments that recognize child care as the workforce behind the workforce. It’s time to end the child care crisis and cultivate an economy that works.

Chris Berleth is President of the Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce. Bob Garrett is President/CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce. Erica Mulberger is the Executive Director of Advance Central PA.

Article from The Daily Item May 27, 2023.