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City Councilor's View: Duluth must address worsening child-care shortage

Arik Forsman.

There is a silent crisis sweeping across Duluth and the Northland. It threatens the quality of life for thousands, makes skilled workers harder to recruit and retain for local businesses, could lead to future disparities in the achievement gap at our schools, and could cap our long-term economic potential if left unaddressed.

That crisis is the lack of affordable, quality child care that affects families in every neighborhood in Duluth.

The Northland Foundation, Blandin Foundation, and IRRRB recently highlighted this growing community concern in a study that found our region has a shortfall of approximately 4,500 child-care slots. When you narrow the focus to just Duluth's zip codes, the results are not good. There are 1,100 children in and around Duluth currently in need of a licensed child-care opening.

What does that mean for affected families?

It means a family in Piedmont Heights doing the math at the kitchen table to figure out if both parents can continue to work.

It means a single parent in Lakeside praying an older relative who watches the kids doesn't get sick.

It means a family in Morgan Park paying double its mortgage for child care and giving up on savings for college.

While families have struggled with some of these dilemmas for decades, the problem recently has grown worse. The number of home-based child-care providers in the region has fallen by 21 percent since 2011, while the capacity at center-based providers has been essentially treading water.

My wife Jessica and I have experienced the effects of the shortfall firsthand. Our recent search for a provider for our 3-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son has been full of the waiting lists, challenging math, and frustrations many parents know all too well.

As parents struggle to find care for their precious young children, addressing this issue should be of growing interest for local businesses. Unemployment in Duluth is at 2.7 percent. With workers in high demand now and for the foreseeable future, employers who can help solve this critical issue for their employees will have a strategic advantage over their competitors.

Promising new models are popping up elsewhere that could offer new ways for businesses to become engaged, such as employers buying slots from child-care providers to offer to their employees like parking spaces. Providers gain the guarantee of stable, long-term revenues, helping them plan and potentially expand in the future, while businesses can use the slots to recruit and retain workers.

Policymakers in Duluth, St. Paul, and Washington, D.C., also have a significant role in addressing these challenges and should seek opportunities to encourage innovation, take a fresh look at the existing regulatory framework, and invest in the people providing this critical service in our community.

As a new city councilor still learning the ropes, I felt compelled to act when I came into office but was unsure where to start. So I started with a simple thank you. I sent written letters to every home-based child-care provider in Duluth this fall thanking them for the work they do to care for Duluth's children. If you know one of these folks, please do the same. We need them now more than ever.

Solving this crisis will not be easy. But I am hopeful that public-private partnerships, innovative ideas, and political courage at all levels of government to address this issue will make a difference.

Just last month, Mayor Emily Larson and I celebrated the addition of 172 new child-care slots in Duluth at University Nursery School. Kids were laughing, parents were beaming, and the staff was proudly witnessing the realization of a vision accomplished.

Duluth can become a destination city for young families if we take the lead in addressing our child-care shortage. If we can realize this vision, the potential for our kids, families, businesses, and community is unlimited.

So, how do we start? Parents can speak up and share their stories. Businesses can raise their hands even if they don't know exactly how to help. Folks interested in becoming providers or organizations with available physical space can contact First Children's Finance.

And, finally, my door is always open. Email me at aforsman@duluthmn.gov or call me at (218) 409-8822.

Let's get to work.

Arik Forsman is an at-large Duluth City Council member, economic development professional and parent.

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