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Our View: Child care shortages are holding Minnesota back

From the editorial: "If money means solutions, help is on the way."

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Every single workday in Duluth, more than 1,200 families — among more than 4,400 in Northeastern Minnesota — struggle with what to do about child care.

“Those families are all figuring it out somehow — unfortunately,” Scott McMahon, whose St. Paul-based Greater Minnesota Partnership crunched the numbers and is monitoring the struggle, said in an interview last week with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board. “They’re building their work schedules around, you know, Dad works here, Mom works here, so somebody is always home. They’ve got Grandma and Grandpa taking the kids one day, two days, a neighbor taking the kids one day, two days.”

A lack of options for quality child care is a problem not only for families, but for the employers of those moms and dads and the businesses and industries they’re running. It’s a problem that’s taking its toll on Minnesota’s economy. As the mantra goes, child care is the business that allows other businesses to be in business.

In the 20 years since 2000, nonmetro Minnesota has lost more than 20,000 child care slots, the Greater Minnesota Partnership has estimated. The Northland Foundation has determined that Minnesota families are suffering $8.1 million in lost earnings and state and local governments $5.3 million in lost tax revenues as a result of child care needs that aren’t being met.

“We have a child care crisis across all of Minnesota and, frankly, across the nation,” said McMahon, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership.

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Child care options for families diminish every time a child-care provider walks away from the long hours, low pay, difficulties in taking time off, and more. The daily struggle for working families grows more urgent with every child care provider who realizes there's more money and better hours in other endeavors — even employment at the corner convenience store.

“We’re working in a broken model and doing the best we can, but it feels like we need to be doing some more fundamental things,” said Northland Foundation President Tony Sertich. “This is an issue we need to solve for our families and for kids but also for our economy.”

If money means solutions, help is on the way.

In D.C., the federal American Rescue Plan included $550 million to give Minnesota’s child care challenges a hearty, welcome, one-time boost.

And in St. Paul, lawmakers are considering two bills with $14 million total to help providers stay in business, to want to be in business, and even to open new spaces in shuttered storefronts and elsewhere. The latter marks a business-model shift from individual in-home child care efforts to larger, more efficient, and better equipped child care centers.

“These state dollars can magnify very quickly,” McMahon said. “The dollars come together, and sustainable, exciting projects happen. We’re not just looking at the state to be the solution to this, though. We know the business community needs to step forward. We know communities themselves need to step forward. It needs to be all players at the table.”

In that spirit, already, entities as wide-ranging as chambers of commerce, local governments, private economic development agencies like Duluth’s APEX, nonprofits like the Northland Foundation, and others have been working cooperatively to address Duluth’s, Northeastern Minnesota’s, and the state’s child care shortcomings.

“This issue cuts across all of the different special interests and philosophies,” Sertich said. “It’s not just a greater Minnesota issue or a metro issue. It’s not an R (Republican) issue or a D (Democratic Party) issue. It’s happening everywhere.“

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Solutions, legislation, and funding — so that every single morning doesn’t have to be a struggle for growing numbers of working Minnesota families — can come from everywhere, too. Fixing our child care shortages needs support from D.C., from St. Paul, and from all of us.

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