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The business community has learned many painful lessons about America’s child care crisis in recent years.

First, a 2019 research report from the national business-leader group ReadyNation revealed the scope of the economic impact of the child care crisis. The price tag? An astounding $57 billion nationally and $141 million here in Montana every year. This economic hit comes from lost productivity, revenue, and earnings created by a lack of access to affordable, high-quality child care for infants and toddlers alone.

And that was before the pandemic.

How much worse have things gotten since COVID-19? A just-released national ReadyNation report, “Female Labor Force Participation Is Key to Our Economic Recovery,” explained that female labor force participation dropped to its lowest rate since 1988, even lower than during the Great Recession of 2008.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2020, Montana’s labor force had lost 1,000 workers, and more than three times as many women were unemployed than a year earlier.

This drop relates directly to the worsening of the child care crisis. Overall, the child care sector has lost an incredible one in six workers over the course of the pandemic. That staggering figure equates to about 167,000 jobs lost nationwide. Pressed to make a difficult choice, many parents — disproportionately women — are forced to focus on child care needs and leave the workforce.

Business leaders understand the powerful connection between child care and the success of our economy. A 2020 survey by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry noted that over half of businesses in every region of the state indicated that increasing access to child care should be a priority in their community. Throughout my own career, I realized that workers are more focused, productive, and present when they have the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing their children are in safe, nurturing environments.

But high-quality child care also plays a vital role in building tomorrow’s workforce. Such care can help children develop fundamental cognitive and behavioral skills that lay the foundation for long-term, positive outcomes like graduating from high school on time, thereby putting them on a path to lifelong academic and career success.

A national survey of over 400 senior executives included in the recent ReadyNation report helped explain why this is such a challenge for the business community. While employers want to expand child care support offered to their employees, they cited various barriers to doing so. To wit, more than three-quarters of employers said that federal or state government incentives would increase the likelihood that their company would expand child care support offered to employees.

Simply put, while business leaders have a role to play in helping their employees find child care options, they can’t solve the crisis by themselves. Creating a reformed child care system that truly strengthens working families, children, and our economy will require employers, parents, and state and federal policymakers to work together to increase investments and offer solutions.

To be sure, employers should do their part by adding to the diversity of child care options that will meet their workforce’s needs. Policymakers can foster employer investments in child care by updating the employer child care tax credit, modernizing employer-sponsored flexible spending accounts, providing incentives to connect employers with child care providers, and encouraging established business owners to assist child care businesses in opening or expanding operations, particularly in areas with limited child care options.

These solutions would help employers take action to help workers.

Amidst a larger national conversation about significant public investments in early childhood, and with the female workforce disproportionately feeling the effects of the pandemic, now is the time to act to reform and strengthen our nation’s child care system.

This crisis is too big for either the government or the private sector to solve alone — and too important to a lasting economic recovery to leave unaddressed. To give our youngest the best possible start, to help parents return to work, and to enhance our current and future workforce, lawmakers should bolster businesses’ efforts to contribute to the diverse array of child care solutions that meet the needs of our nation’s families.

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Tim Solso is the former Non-Executive Chairman of General Motors and Ret. Chairman & CEO of Cummins Inc., and a member of the ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood. He is a resident of Livingston.

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