N.J. policies must support child care as essential service

Bridget O'Brien. (File photo)

People have long known that private, community-based child care is a vital part of our communities.

But it wasn’t until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — and, now, with the state steadily reopening business — that New Jersey has been forced to rank its industries by necessity.

What has clearly come to light is that private, community-based child care is pivotal to society and our economy, certainly equal to transportation and housing. However, even New Jersey Transit can struggle to function, as employees are forced to stay home because there is no trained professional able to watch their children.

Urban planners realize that society and commerce depend on solid infrastructure. Possessing a reliable transportation system has always been a crucial component of economic development. Federal and state governments recognize this priority by building roads, railways, bridges and airports, funded by government bonds and user fees.

We need to consider child care as an infrastructure industry sector in its own right, serving the needs of the public. According to a study from the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization in Washington, D.C., child care is a $1.9 billion industry in New Jersey that pumps 41.7% of its revenue back into the economy, translating to a $4.1 billion economic engine for New Jersey. It also supports $8 billion of earned taxable income from the parents it serves.

In addition, the child care industry paid more than $400 million a year in taxes in 2019 to New Jersey and provides reliable, steady employment for 87,000 people, most of whom are women, according to the same studies.

By contrast, NJ Transit’s annual report in 2019 showed an operating revenue of $1.059 billion and $2.89 billion in operating expenses, which resulted in a $1.831 billion operating loss to our state. NJ Transit has just 11,000 employees. Yet, remarkably, our federal government found our public transit system so essential to our economy that it was granted $1.43 billion by the CARES Act.

Policymakers and business leaders at the state and federal level must recognize how critical the private, community-based child care industry is to the economic health of this state. It is an essential part of our infrastructure, serving as an economic engine that historically has never required state and federal aid.

But these are different times. The child care industry is gasping for the first time in its history.

Now is the time for state and federal leaders to reevaluate their priorities and create policies that support our vital industry.

We are proud that child care already operates with stringent health and safety regulations. Smart, responsible protocols have been built over the years, following outbreaks of H1N1, measles and, of course, the yearly flu epidemics.

Now, with COVID-19 protocols in place, private child care is even safer, with even stricter protocols. These centers are available and ready to open at full capacity. They simply can not fail.

The economy and our society simply can not stay shut until an assured COVID shield is invented. The only question is how it can best be done in the public’s best interest. Child care needs to be protected with sound policies, such as:

  • Protecting at-risk families with unemployment benefits so parents can afford to stay home with their children.
  • Allowing private child care to operate at full capacity with enhanced protocols, such as liberal illness policies, strict travel policies for staff and families, mandatory temperature checks before entering, daily health declarations by staff, PPE for all staff, isolated classrooms for tracking, no visitation during operating hours, mandatory home quarantine for anyone suspected of exposure and strict sanitation procedures.
  • Providing government funding for supplies related to enhanced COVID sanitization and PPE, including, but not limited to, gloves, masks, smocks, UV lights, bleach and paper products.
  • Securing a strong and reliable job base, especially in low-income areas of the state.
  • Allowing full classrooms. Currently, classroom capacity is cut by an estimated 50%, driving many centers out of business.

We cannot expect government to replicate this essential service; there are simply not enough taxpayer resources to fund child care within schools or other taxpayer-owned infrastructure.

Without child care, the hope of an economic recovery in New Jersey is years away.

We need immediate action to support this industry, which serves the bulk of the workforce and middle-class families where the heads of households need to work.

The fate of the child care industry becomes increasingly more desperate every day, as parents struggle to pay for the service, while child care centers struggle to remain open.

Now is the time for state and federal officials to address child care just like public transportation: doing whatever possible to keep the engines running to help recharge the economy.

Let us do our important, reliable and safe jobs, which benefits everyone.

Bridget O’Brien is vice president of Early Childhood Education Advocates.

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