I was born in Custer, South Dakota, a 2,000-person town in the southern Black Hills. The identities of small-town kids in the ’90s were wrapped up in a handful of attributes – things like friend groups, sports allegiances and what your parents did for a living. I remember getting a fresh bowl cut at Pat’s Barber Shop (run by Michael and Justin’s dad), cavities filled at Custis Dentistry (Tyler’s parents), marveling at Jorgensen Log Homes (Tyson’s parents) and birthday parties at Pizza Works (Clay’s dad). These entrepreneurial families were community pillars providing services, sponsoring and coaching T-ball teams, and investing on several levels in our small but vibrant community.
Custer is emblematic of America in many ways. Almost half of U.S. workers are employed by a small business. Eighty percent of those small businesses don’t have employees and are managed by a single owner – like Pat’s Barber Shop – while another 16% employ fewer than 20 people.
In small towns and cities across the country, the shuttering of one specific kind of small business can shatter a community: child care providers.
During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Custer YMCA child care center – the largest and only licensed provider in town – teetered on the brink of closure, facing a $57,000 budget deficit. The center pleaded its case to the county board of commissioners, explaining that if dozens of children no longer had quality, age-appropriate care, their families would face the impossible choice of either dropping out of the workforce or leaving the community altogether.
The board in Custer granted the entire $57,000 from federal pandemic relief funds to the YMCA, recognizing that a working parent’s ability to participate in the local workforce is as much about maintaining a strong community as keeping businesses afloat.
This understanding – that the businesses are integral to and not separate from the communities in which they operate – is the driving force behind why many employers are leading innovative endeavors to address the child care challenges facing their employees and fellow community members.
Right now, the United States has 3 million more open jobs than available workers. In a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of the unemployed, almost one-third of respondents said that child and/or dependent care has made it difficult or impossible to return to the workforce.
This is, in part, because the child care workforce itself is in a crisis state, with thousands of early childhood educators leaving the sector in the last three years. To address the provider shortage and create more opportunities for children and working parents to flourish, public-private partnerships can help. For instance, an innovative partnership in Iowa between Iowa City, Johnson County and local businesses created the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program in an effort to build a sustainable source of funding and strengthen their local child care workforce for years to come.
In Idaho, the semiconductor company Micron Technology is planning to not only open child care centers across the street from its Boise headquarters and near a manufacturing plant in New York state, but also to fund a $500,000 initiative to train early childhood educators with the goal of building a strong-enough child care network that all Micron employees will have the option of accessing quality care.
Broad, one-size-fits-all approaches to child care cannot address the varied and unique needs of child care providers, working families and employers. Fortunately, we have seen states, communities and individual businesses lead in this space and take it upon themselves to help relieve the pressure points child care gaps create.
For example, in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, plastics manufacturer i2M recognized that child care availability was a major barrier for its regional workforce. i2M partnered with another local business, Building Blocks Child Center, to both subsidize the cost of care and to offer extended-hours care, which better fit working parents’ schedules.
Across the country in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood provides its employees with a child care network and concierge service in addition to a monthly stipend to support its thousands of park and resort workers. (“Be more like Dolly Parton” is always a good rule of thumb.)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s child care roadmap highlights these examples and more, providing innovative tools for employers seeking to support their employees’ child care needs.
Whether in Texas, Alaska, Utah, the Carolinas and elsewhere, child care gaps cost our country billions of dollars in economic losses. But the business case for child care extends beyond just that. It’s about ensuring children have the foundation they need to excel throughout their lives. It’s about empowering working families so they can flourish at home and in the workforce. And it’s about recognizing that access to flexible, quality child care is essential for businesses – like Pat’s Barber Shop and Jorgensen Log Homes – to survive and for communities to thrive.