Moe Hickey: The pandemic has exposed several areas where Utah children need more help

The state has the money to improve education, health care and mental health for children.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toddlers listen to music and play along at the Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 27, 2021.

As we soon enter the third year of the pandemic one thing has become clear. Utah children and families are struggling and need changes in policies and funding priorities to address the current situation.

We have an extensive list of unmet needs in childcare, early education, health care, mental health and K-12 education. The following will highlight some but not all our concerns.

• Childcare: Utah currently ranks 51st in accessibility and affordability. We need to support both providers and families with stipends to make the sector more affordable. We need to develop the sector statewide so that childcare is accessible to all families that need the service. Lastly, we need to be prepared to accept federal funds that support childcare and Pre-K programs.

• Early education: We have an opportunity to expand both funding and seats in Optional Enhanced Kindergarten programs across the state. As our workforce has changed, so has our need for full-day options. The OEK program allows parents to choose the best option for their child.

• Health care: Utah currently ranks 46th out of 51 (including the District of Columbia) in health coverage for children. This is a statewide issue as more than half the uninsured live in rural counties. Funding the approximately 82,000 children would cost $5 million but would result in an overall savings of $9 million.

• Mental health: This is a national crisis among youth, and we have seen a dramatic rise in young teenage girls being in crisis. We need to do a statewide “gap analysis” to identify our needs and then develop a system that would meet the long-term needs of all our children.

• K-12 education: Utah has moved up to 49th in per-pupil funding, which is a positive direction. We need to continue the recent push to increase funding, but we also need to study all the extra burdens we are placing on the staff and system.

There is a cost to all these recommendations, but we have both the state dollars and the influx of federal support which allows us to take bold steps. What we need is the political will to take the required steps to meet the needs.

There are already several bills filed to cut both the income and corporate tax rates. We are currently at a 50-year low in tax effort. We do support targeted tax cuts such as a full Earned Income Tax Credit, child stipends and other policies that would benefit low-income Utahns and provide a roadmap out of poverty.

Please get engaged in this year’s legislative session and contact you representatives and let them know that you think now is the time to “Invest in Utah Kids.”

Moe Hickey | Voices for Utah Children

Moe Hickey is executive director of Voices for Utah Children.