Guest Column: The child care solution is right in front of us

By Sen. Ginny Lyons and Rep. Ann Pugh

One of the greatest challenges to Vermont’s future is our state’s shrinking labor force, which hit an alarming 30-year low last April. 

Across the country and here in Vermont, women have left the workforce at much higher rates than men, which is sadly not surprising, given that women have faced inequities in the workplace for decades. For many working women, particularly working moms, an already precarious juggling act became impossible with the added stresses of Covid-19.

The good news is that Vermont is investing in a workforce development solution essential to ensuring that all parents can fully participate in the workforce: equitable access to high-quality, affordable child care.

It was heartening to have near-unanimous support from our colleagues during the 2021 legislative session for H.171, the child care bill we championed and diligently worked on in our respective committees. 

Gov. Scott signed this landmark legislation into law. The law sets Vermont on a path to achieve equitable access for all families needing high-quality, affordable child care.

For several years, we have worked together to address Vermont’s child care crisis. But the pandemic showed us gaps in the system and the cost of not getting this right. 

Even before Covid, three out of five of Vermont’s youngest children didn’t have access to the child care they needed; families lucky enough to find it were spending up to 30 percent of their household income on child care; and early childhood educators doing this essential work were not earning a livable wage. 

One in four women who became unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of child care. Child care workers, most of whom are women, have been notoriously underpaid for decades. As a result, there is an increasingly short supply of these professionals. 

We often talk about the expense of child care but we also need to understand that these child care experts are paid tens of thousands of dollars less than their peers in other similarly skilled professions. That’s unconscionable.

As college professors, we taught many young women studying early education. They were excited to become professionals — trained to care for children from birth to age 5, to help kids build emotional, social and cognitive skills necessary for future success.

Today we hear from families that child care providers are leaving their jobs. Pay for child care workers is simply too low — it is not a livable wage. This contributes to child care workers leaving the workforce and the workforce crisis we face today.

Solving the child care crisis is crucial to supporting women in the workforce, which is something we have been focused on since long before Covid.

The solution is right in front of us. We need a child care system that is accessible, affordable, high-quality, equitable and accountable. 

In 2022, we must continue on the path toward a strong and stable child care system established by H.171, and we need to come together to respond to Vermont’s urgent child care workforce crisis.

We understand that these priorities will require significant investment. We also know both from research and lived experience that this is one of the wisest investments we can make for Vermont’s children, families, recovery and economy.

Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Chittenden, of Williston, is chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. State Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, is chair of the House Committee on Human Services.