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Classroom at Child Development Inc (copy)

Students participate in a sing-along at a Madison child care center in 2013.

Every young child in Wisconsin deserves a happy childhood and early learning experiences that put them on a path to success. And every Wisconsinite benefits when we invest in the care of our young children — not just because this is an investment in our future, but also because child care is an essential work support for today’s families.

As recently reported, the child care industry is in crisis. We have a system that’s not working for child care programs or the families they serve; and as employers are frequently reporting, it’s not working for our economy either. Child care programs cannot recruit and retain staff at current low wages and parents cannot pay more to ensure qualified teachers.

The growing number of child care closures or programs limiting their enrollment is problematic for the business community that seeks to attract young new employees. Fifty-four percent of Wisconsinites live in “child care deserts,” places where the demand for child care exceeds its availability; this number increases to 68 percent when accounting for our rural areas only, and minority populations are disproportionately affected. Over the past decade, 61 percent of family child care providers have closed, and nearly every community can identify at least one child care center struggling to keep its doors open.

A starting place for change is with Wisconsin’s state budget. We have a child care subsidy program called Wisconsin Shares that provides assistance to income-eligible working families. It is a program that is grossly underutilized (less than 10 percent of eligible families are served) and chronically underfunded.

Historically, when demand for subsidies increased, the Legislature made sure money was available. However, in 2006 rates were frozen for more than a decade and they’ve barely begun to rise since.

What does this mean for the working family? Not only has the percentage of eligible families using Wisconsin Shares declined, but when families are determined eligible, many cannot find care or afford the care available to them. Child care costs did not stop going up when subsidy rates were frozen, but demand for quality did. This is a problem. Rates are currently at a level that assures affordability to just 15 percent of available care in a county, even though the federal recommendation is to set rates so 75 percent of care is affordable. Note that at the turn of this century, Wisconsin was held up as a state to emulate because we met that federal guideline.

Here’s how Wisconsin Shares contributes to the child care crisis: Every family who is eligible for assistance has a co-payment based on their income. In addition, they must pay the difference between what they receive in Wisconsin Shares and what child care costs at the program they choose. Families end up racking up bills they cannot pay. Programs either lose those families or carry their debt, and money is lost that could be going to staff wages and other program improvements. Staff leave and programs close.

Gov. Evers’ budget calls for an increase in Wisconsin Shares rates to take us to the 50th percentile of market rate. This would be a great step forward; getting us to the 75th percentile would be even better.

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We encourage every working parent, every business owner, every child care provider, and everyone who cares about the community they live in to contact their legislators now and tell them to support an increase in Wisconsin Shares reimbursement rates in this budget.

Supporting the child care needs of all working families will take more. It will take bold, innovative actions and new collaborations in communities all around the state. On April 9, during the national Week of the Young Child, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association invites you to Wisconsin Strong, an event at the Madison Central Library that will bring together three distinct voices: employers, working parents, and child care programs to discuss challenges and solutions. Join us.

Peggy Haack is outreach coordinator for the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, a member of the Dignity at Work Coalition. The coalition is composed of Wisconsin organizations and individuals who seek to establish higher standards of respect and equality for all who labor, and foster compassion for working families. To learn more, visit dignityatworkcoalition.org or email dignityatworkcoalition@gmail.com.

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