One consequence of 18 months of pandemic hibernation is a reassessment of lifestyles, which has led to the Great Resignation. Working from home while caring for small children has underscored families’ need for help. Now that some jobs allow for working at home, returning to the office, or a combination of both, parents are struggling to find a new balance between work and child care.
Now is the time to rethink priorities and unleash the nation’s human capital. In comparison to other affluent nations, the United States is sorely lacking when it comes to providing quality child care. The problem is multi-faceted: Not enough excellent care is available. Child care providers are underpaid, while parents languish on waiting lists and pay high prices for places in the best facilities.
Illinois has taken some steps to help parents, who can find out more by consulting the webpage of the Illinois Department of Human Services and clicking on “Apply for child care assistance.”
But this is not nearly enough to fully address the situation. Government at all levels must step up to support parents, who are making vital contributions to the economy.
The federal child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child helps parents pay for child care, and President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, still under negotiation, would extend the credit for one to three years. Draft versions of the proposal also include provisions for paid family leave and for free preschool for three- and four-year-olds.
The State of Illinois and the City of Chicago could emulate states and municipalities that are doing more to support parents, making important contributions to the economy. To address the shortage of staff in child care centers, the state of New Jersey, for example, is drawing on federal stimulus dollars to provide $1,000 bonuses to recruit new employees and retain existing staff.
A role for higher education institutions
Every Illinois college and university should provide on-campus quality child care, not only for children of faculty and staff but also for pre-schoolers in the surrounding community. Those campuses that already fund child care centers should be working now to improve and expand them. Those that do not should immediately plan to establish them.
On-campus quality child care has another benefit: opportunities for college students in a wide variety of majors to intern in the center and gain valuable experience, not only in early childhood, but in social work, communication disorders, business, and more.
During my 13 years as president of Governors State University, I witnessed the benefit of quality on-campus child care. The GSU Family Development Center (FDC) provides specialized services for pregnant women, full-day education for children from seven weeks of age through pre-school, and after-school programs for children up to 12. The FDC does not limit its services to care. It offers education even to infants. Teachers, nicknamed “the baby whisperers,” talk to the little ones and manipulate their arms and legs regularly during their waking hours. It’s hard to imagine babies in the first year of life getting that kind of attention even in affluent at-home settings.
One-third of the children in the FDC are supported by Early Head Start, a federal program for families that are 130% or more below poverty guidelines. Qualified pregnant women receive support. FDC staff members make home visits to program families. Children with disabilities are welcome. During the height of the pandemic, when the FDC closed briefly, Early Head Start parents could pick up diapers and food at the center.
One important point: I would challenge anyone visiting the FDC to distinguish between an Early Head Start child and the offspring of a full professor. All children profit from the diversity and quality education provided.
A vibrant Illinois and U.S. economy depends on a proliferation of centers like the FDC. Now is the time to lobby for federal, state, and city resources to educate babies and pre-schoolers while their parents contribute their creativity to a revived workforce.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D, is an adviser at the American Council on Education and was president of Governors State University from 2007-2020.
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