The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Arizona is in the midst of a crisis that profoundly affects working parents, the economy, military readiness, and, most importantly, our state’s youngest children.
This crisis — a lack of access to affordable, quality infant-and-toddler child care— does immense damage in Arizona and beyond. A recent report from the business-leader group ReadyNation revealed that this crisis costs a staggering $57 billion each year, nationwide, which comes from $37 billion in diminished productivity, $13 billion in added rehiring and training costs, and $7 billion in lost tax revenue.
Together, these numbers add up to a crushing, negative impact on our economy and our society.
Last month, the three of us came together to begin to forge solutions to the child care crisis. In a roundtable discussion in Casa Grande, we explored the far-reaching problem of lack of access to affordable, quality child care. In Flagstaff, alongside local law-enforcement leaders, we got a firsthand look at a solution at the Foresight Learning Center, a high-quality child care facility. This diverse group of business leaders, retired military leaders, local law enforcement officials, and congressional representatives are united in making sure our children get a successful start in life.
One reason we’re so focused on this crisis is because it is particularly pressing in Arizona, where 61% of children under 6 have both parents, or their only parent, working outside the home. That means that over 300,000 Arizona children need some type of supervision while their parents work. Unfortunately, as in most states, our child care system doesn’t fully meet the needs of Arizona families or employers. Simply put, high-quality care is too scarce and too expensive.
About half of all state residents live in a child care “desert” — areas where there are at least three children for every licensed child care slot. Moreover, although Arizona’s voluntary quality improvement system, Quality First, has been shown to improve the quality of child care in the state, many child care settings do not participate. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of center-based child care for children up to 4 years old in Arizona is around $11,000, which is about the same as the average cost of in-state college tuition.
From each of our perspectives, the current state of child care paints an alarming picture.
When parents don’t have access to reliable, affordable, high-quality care, their work suffers, their productivity plummets, and they face greater hurdles to career advancement. But, beyond the hit to today’s workforce, the child care crisis also harms the future workforce. Study after study shows that young children who benefit from high-quality early childhood care and education programs are more likely to experience positive educational, career and life outcomes than their peers who lack access.
This reality also points to the reason this crisis is especially harmful for infants and toddlers. Not only is care typically harder to find for our youngest children, but those children are also experiencing a key time of brain development. From birth to age 3, children form millions of new neural pathways every second.
The cumulative impact resulting from our failure to invest in key child development programs measurably degrades our national security. Currently, 72% of Arizona’s young adults aged 17-24 cannot qualify for military service. One of the major disqualifiers is poor educational achievement.
Investing in high-quality child care cultivates long-term educational attainment by laying a foundation that can help young brains develop. These investments can also have lasting, positive effects on entire communities, and, indeed, on our country. High-quality early childhood care and education programs can help set children on a trajectory for success in school and life.
We are energized that commitments to finding solutions to this crisis are beginning to happen in Arizona and across the nation. Only by bringing together communities, businesses, local leaders, federal policymakers from both sides of the aisle, parents, and child care providers, can we increase access, reduce costs and improve the quality of child care. Our state, nation and next generation will all benefit as a result.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D) represents Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner (US Army, ret.) is a member of Mission: Readiness. Michael Kintner is director of marketing & operations at Caesars Entertainment Corporation and Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, and is a member of ReadyNation.