Monday, December 11, 2023

Why child care matters

| March 14, 2023 1:00 AM

Red or blue, old or young, parent or childless, kids matter to everyone.

Each person is part of human society, a system where no one is without impact on others. The system works best when each contribution, whether social, economic or professional, is optimally healthy and competent, thus creating the most benefit and least harm.

Children soon become our doctors, electricians and baristas; our employees and bosses. Our partners and leaders. And parents of the next generation who will manage this planet.

Everything that happens to kids impacts others down the road.

According to research reported by the Centers for Disease Control, a child’s brain reaches 90% of its adult size by age 6 (although the judgment center and other connections grow through the mid-20s). Good and bad, early childhood experiences and learning affect brain connections, which determine how they function later. Systematic reviews of scores of studies confirm early childhood education (before age 5) leads to better overall health, reductions in welfare and crime rates and better earnings and economic contributions.

In other words, what happens in a kid’s environment, economic status, family life, traumas and everything else by age 5, even more than what happens later on, determines the child’s baseline: how strong or weak, how stable or unstable, how well or poorly they’ll cope with life — and by extension, how they interact with the rest of us.

Quality child care and preschool literally pays.

According to research collected by the University of Pennsylvania, for every $1 spent on early childhood education programs, the return is $4 to $13. That’s measuring beyond improved school performance later on, including positive impacts on health, achievement and salaries, and incidence of crime.

Quality child care and pre-K link to the American Dream.

Research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported by Brookings Institution found children from low-income backgrounds who had access to 24 months or more of high-quality early childhood education in their first five years were more likely to graduate from college and had higher salaries at age 26.

How we start out matters a lot. Scientific and observational research stacked as high as the Empire State Building backs that up. State legislators know that.

So why did JFAC — the budgeting arm of the Idaho Legislature — just set a budget that cuts $38 million in child care and early childhood education grants, along with other state funds, from the budget, earlier than planned? Parents, educators and child care operators are already protesting, from Coeur d’Alene to Boise. If the House and Senate pass it in the coming days, which every indication says they will, operators say they’ll need to cut staff or close soon.

Sam Wolkenhauer, regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor, said child care had pre-pandemic expense problems, but the pandemic and rising wages highlighted and worsened the situation.

“The picture I have of it is that early child care, specifically, is a bottleneck for a lot of people getting back into the workforce,” Wolkenhauer told KREM2 last year. “It doesn’t scale up, it’s expensive and it’s hard to find workers.”

With all the data on the big benefits of early childhood education and socialization before age 4, pulling funding is a head-scratcher. The only explanation I found was a simple, four-letter word. An acronym:


The roughly $300 monthly supplement per employee child care and preschools have been relying on to stay open and staffed as expenses skyrocketed over the last three years are grants. The federal American Rescue Plan Act emerged with COVID, providing relief to states, which states in turn funneled to programs the states felt needed the support, such as child care and pre-K programs.

That was never meant to be permanent, say opponents, and they’re right. These ARPA funds funneled through Idaho Health and Welfare were going to sunset by 2024 anyway (if renewed). But why stop earlier than necessary? As for the separate state budget items related to child programs, I found no explanation.

Yet while the pandemic is no longer prominent in our lives, its after-effects seem to be. Inflation, unstable growth in North Idaho, food, housing, and rental rates that make it hard for workers and small business owners to get by remain persistent.

Plus, the relatively high percentage of federal funding that Idaho receives (through many other departments and for many decades), with its sixth-highest federal funding rank according to Smart Asset, has become a political trigger point in the Legislature and locally. Getting rid of federal dollars makes some folks feel better. In other states those folks are getting rid of federal reduced and free school lunch programs, too — a puzzle because kids have no control over what parents can or will provide.

The problem with getting rid of federal funding becomes how to fill the holes left behind in real lives.

Meanwhile, kids need care. With out-of-control prices in housing and other markets, two-parent families are less able to make it on one income, so early childhood programs are essential for practical reasons, if not educational.

Today, that’s a bigger chunk of a young family’s income. Child care for two children can cost an average $1,200 in North Idaho (still cheaper than Washington, D.C., for example, where the average is almost twice that).

Without these grants, child care and preschool costs will go up even more.

Things aren’t like they used to be. It’s no longer enough just to work hard, because costs and wages are no longer balanced. According to June 2022 Bureau of Labor statistics, the average wage in Coeur d’Alene region is $22 per hour, or roughly $45,000 per year, so child care for two costs a third of a family’s income. According to, an average two-bedroom apartment costs about $2,000 in North Idaho, or about half of the family’s income before taxes. That leaves about $500 a month for everything else — taxes, food, cars, medical, utilities, etc. It would be difficult for one person to live on that, let alone three or four.

Before you say, “But that’s all a lot easier with two working,” (if affordable child care is available) consider this: Many local hourly wages in North Idaho are less than $22, especially in the case of young families, with or without a degree. Also, not all families are two-parent families, not necessarily by choice.

None of it is up to the child, and it’s the child who experiences the consequences.

Society already pools resources (local, state and federal) to help itself by increasing access to the basics for centuries. We do it with fire, police, roads, parks and K-12 education, to name a few.

That’s not charity or hand holding; it’s self-interest. Everyone wants to live in a stable society. That starts at the beginning: With children.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email

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