Legislation to ensure that Vermont families pay no more than 10 percent of their income on child care has passed both the House and Senate. Together, there was but a single negative vote.

Typically a vote of this strength implies the benign nature of the bill. Like opposing motherhood and apple pie. But obliging the state to deal with the challenges of a woefully inadequate child care system is anything but plain vanilla, nobody-could-complain-about-this, legislation. It’s complicated, and, ultimately, expensive. It’s a game changer. For us all.

For Vermont this is a big-time political score on one of the state’s most vexing issues; so, how did we get here?

Three reasons;

First, the pandemic pulled the curtain on just how difficult an issue child care is for a large percentage of Vermont families. Without affordable child care many Vermont families can’t earn a living. When child care centers closed down, many parents [predominately women] had little choice but to reduce their hours, or to quit their jobs. Income levels stagnated for low and middle income families. Children didn’t have access to necessary educational opportunities.

Second, the effect of the pandemic and the lack of child care began to creep up the socio-economic ladder. Businesses quickly figured out they could not produce their products at reduced workforce levels. They saw a future that would test their plans for growth. Vermont’s challenging demographics made it obvious that to grow, for the state to increase its revenue, would depend on being able to expand its workforce, something nearly impossible to achieve if parents don’t have access to, or can afford, quality child care.

Third, is good storytelling. No cause of this scale succeeds without a mission-driven and professionally run team behind it. A sizable part of the credit goes to Let’s Grow Kids and its CEO Aly Richards. The organization has spent the last half dozen years putting together the research necessary to show just how dire the child care circumstances are — down to each individual municipality. Armed with the information, the organization was able to build the necessary relationships to solidify the issue as one of the state’s most important. It was also bi-partisan [as the near unanimous votes show.] Ms. Richards, et al, have been able to bring Gov. Phil Scott on board, the Legislative leadership, and the state’s business community. They marketed themselves and their message masterfully. They told the story Vermont needed to hear. [Theirs is an example to other organizations/causes.]

The objective has yet to be complete. Obviously. The legislation sets in place a process to figure out how to pay for the plan. A deadline of January, 2023 has been set. In ordinary times that would be where the proverbial rubber hits the road. You can’t play if you can’t pay.

Which is why if you have to choose between being good or being lucky, you pick lucky. And the luck with the issue of child care is that we have a president who has identified it as one of his key objectives. He understands it’s the workforce that drives the economy. In Mr. Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, he focuses on the expansion of the child tax credit, paid parental leave, and two years of free preschool and free community college. Included is the proposal that no family pay more than seven percent of their income on child care for the first five years. That’s 30 percent more generous than Vermont’s plan.

The president has also identified ways to pay for it, which translates directly to Vermont’s advantage. The legislation passed by Vermont’s Legislature has already put in place the steps necessary to carry anything forward that materializes should Congress pass almost any form of the president’s proposal.

We would not be in this position if Mr. Biden were not president.

No matter the federal government’s beneficence, there is every expectation we would still need to pay for some of our proposed child care needs. But if Congress passes anything close to what the president has proposed, it fundamentally changes the debate in Vermont. Instead of simply meeting basic needs, we can put in place a best-of-its-kind model, something that takes advantage of what we already have in place. We’re that far ahead of most states.

That’s crucial because compared to most states, the strength of our workforce is less robust. Our population’s growth is negligible. Our fertility rate is the nation’s lowest. We are near the bottom in the percentage of our high school graduates going on to college. From a pure efficiency perspective, the greatest return on our child care “investment” is within our low to middle income families.

The savings on the federal government’s child care proposal is an estimated $14,800 for the average Vermont family. If the other parts of the president’s American Families Plan are layered in, those same families could save almost double that.

The true power of these savings is what they unleash in terms of economic output [parents able to enter the workforce], improved educational opportunities for children and parents, and the savings from reduced pressures on the state’s poverty related programs. It’s this recognition that is borne out in the Vermont Business Roundtable’s assessment which determined that for every dollar invested in child care there is a three dollar return.

It’s an economic prosperity argument -writ large- with a more egalitarian outcome. Much work remains, but the timing of Vermont’s legislative action and the president’s $1.8 trillion proposal could hardly be better.

by Emerson Lynn

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