Brigette Weier: Will Utah leaders actually care for kids?

Life for working families with young children is about to get much more difficult.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children participate in an activity on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

Child care is all the buzz in local and national media recently. And it should be, with critical COVID-era funding running out soon. I won’t bore you with the same terrifying statistics you’ve likely seen about the looming child care crisis. It’s enough to know that life for working families with young children is about to get much more difficult.

The primary driver of these terrifying predictions — child care programs closing, tuition rising dramatically — is the end of Utah’s Child Care Stabilization Grants program. These grants allowed child care programs to stay open during pandemic disruptions, upgrade their health and safety resources, and — most importantly — pay child care workers a decent wage.

Sept. 30 was the last day that Utah programs received these funds. After Sept. 30, grant amounts dropped by 75% and will continue to fall until all the funding is exhausted early next year. National organizations predict that Utah’s available child care capacity could drop by half.

Utah already loses $1.36 billion in economic activity each year to child care disruptions, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This will definitely worsen in 2024.

None of these dire figures have moved our state leaders to action. This puzzles me.

Utah is home to the most children per capita of any state. We have a cultural ethos that purports to value children and families. Yet, the state invests nearly nothing in the care and education of young children. We offer little support to young families struggling with unaffordable housing, high food and gas prices and, of course, ballooning child care costs. Most young families in Utah need every available adult in their household working to meet their basic needs.

Yet, when confronted with stories and numbers that illustrate these families’ needs, elected leaders’ response is: “There’s no good solution,” “Government isn’t the solution” or “We just don’t know what to do.”

Well, good news! We do have a solution. We even have proof it works. Those Child Care Stabilization Grants actually worked. The infusion of $600 million dollars over two years ( a drop in the bucket compared to our $3 billion “surplus!”) have kept existing child care programs open, supported the creation of new child care programs and bolstered compensation for child care workers.

The child care situation in Utah not only stabilized — it improved! We increased our child care capacity by nearly 30%. Public investment worked.

I’m flabbergasted that, with a successful solution right in front of them, state leaders’ response is to wait and see if someone else — the business sector or local governments — will step in to fix this decades-long crisis.

The care of children always has been, and continues to be, the foundation of our society and economy. Childcare is social infrastructure that impacts everyone, even those in our communities without children. Your favorite restaurant, your doctor’s office, the local movie theater, the neighborhood grocery store all can grind to a halt when the employees can’t access child care.

Without child care for their workforce, schools lose teachers and other essential staff, and hospitals struggle to respond to community needs. Our current workforce shortage becomes a workforce crisis.

Yes, another crisis. When childcare providers can’t afford to stay open, and when parents can’t afford to pay the true costs of care, our economy collapses.

I have worked in the childcare industry for more than 30 years — while raising three of my own children. As a provider and a parent, I know childcare has been unsustainable and difficult to navigate for a long time. Now we have a solution; we know what works!

To avert these converging crises, our elected leaders need to step up now and invest in caring for kids. The real question left is this: Utah leaders, when will you decide to actually care for kids?

Brigette Weier

Rev. Brigette Weier is an organizer for the Care for Kids Network.