Editor's note: This commentary is by Robyn Freedner-Maguire, who is the campaign director of Let’s Grow Kids.
[R]ight now, the Legislature and administration are debating over teacher health care plans and a compromise that may result in millions of dollars in savings for Vermont. If and when such savings are reaped, it will be imperative to invest those dollars in ways that will yield the greatest benefits to Vermont’s families, communities and economy.
If we want to truly make our state more affordable, we need to start addressing the underlying contributors to our shrinking tax base and our ballooning special education, health care and human services costs.
Study after study has shown that investing in high-quality early care and learning experiences for young children dramatically reduces future spending in other very costly areas such as health care, special education and corrections. In fact, a recent Vermont-specific report found that every dollar invested to expand and improve Vermont’s early care and learning programs would yield a $3.08 return.
Making Vermont more affordable is key to attracting the skilled workers our businesses need to thrive and our economy needs to grow. While property tax relief is one way to address the affordability problem, another important strategy is increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care — which is one of the top factors workers with young children look at when considering new job opportunities.
One of the primary reasons too many Vermont families are living paycheck to -paycheck is the high cost of child care — it’s the second highest cost for Vermont families with children after the cost of housing. Middle income families are spending up to 40 percent of their household income on child care.
If we provided high-quality, affordable child care to all Vermont children birth to 5 who have all available parents in the labor force, Vermont’s citizens and government would reap net benefits of $1.3 billion over the next 60 years (representing the working lifetime of the children receiving that care). That’s a return on investment that Vermont can’t afford to leave on the table.
Meanwhile, Vermont child care workers earn an average of less than $25,000 a year, often without benefits. Given this financial reality, it’s not surprising that fewer and fewer people are entering and staying in the early childhood field. The result is a serious child care shortage — almost half of Vermont infants and toddlers likely to need care don’t have access to any regulated child care programs, and nearly 80 percent don’t have access to high-quality programs.
Vermont’s child care challenge has serious social and economic consequences. When children don’t get what they need for healthy development, they are more likely to need special education, struggle with addiction, and have mental and physical health problems later in life. In short, we can make this investment now or we can pay more later.
Vermont already has a mechanism to address issues of child care access, quality and affordability: the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP). Unfortunately, the program has been underfunded for many years and tuition assistance rates have fallen way behind the cost of quality child care.
Let’s Grow Kids is part of a group through the Vermont Early Childhood Alliance that’s been advocating for an increase of $9.5 million into CCFAP. The Legislature took an important first step in the right direction before adjournment by approving a budget with $2.5 million in additional funding to make high-quality, early care and learning programs more affordable for families. We commend the Legislature and governor for making our kids a priority. But even if the budget becomes law with these important investments intact, there’s still a funding gap of over $9 million that would need to be filled to align child care tuition assistance rates with current market rates.
Increasing funding for CCFAP is only the first step to making high-quality, affordable child care accessible to all Vermont families who need it. We know from the report "Vermont’s Early Care and Learning Dividend" that if we provided high-quality, affordable child care to all Vermont children birth to 5 who have all available parents in the labor force, Vermont’s citizens and government would reap net benefits of $1.3 billion over the next 60 years (representing the working lifetime of the children receiving that care). That’s a return on investment that Vermont can’t afford to leave on the table.
We hope the governor and legislators will consider this investment as part of any compromise plan they work on. To achieve the greatest savings for Vermont taxpayers now and in the future, we must increase investments in high-quality, affordable child care to ensure all our kids get a strong start.