William Isler, Audrey Russo & Jake Witherell: Gap in nontraditional child care undermines economic growth | TribLIVE.com
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Kids love playing musical chairs. Around they go, and when the music stops, someone has a seat, and someone is standing.

But Pennsylvania parents and employers are playing a real-life game of musical chairs, with devastating consequences. Nearly half of Pennsylvania families work in fields demanding evening, night-time and weekend hours, but only one child care seat is available for every three families that need it.

As a result, children lack quality care, parents lose their jobs and miss career opportunities, and employers struggle to close hiring gaps. This is the reality, as seen in “Making It Work: Examining the Status of Non-Traditional Child Care in Pennsylvania,” a new report from Research for Action funded by The Heinz Endowments.

Nearly one in three Pennsylvania families with young children, or 150,000 families total, has nontraditional child care (NTCC) needs. The vast majority, 85%, earn incomes above the federal poverty line ($25,750 for a family of four). One family in five with NTCC needs exceeds the poverty line by 500% or more.

About 44% of NTCC homes are headed by single parents, who often have even fewer resources than dual-parent households.

Nontraditional hours dominate sectors that represent Pennsylvania’s greatest workforce needs — one-quarter of the jobs demanding nontraditional childcare are in health care and social assistance, another 10% to 15% are in retail, accommodation and food service, and manufacturing, and 41% are in other fields. Accordingly, the challenges of nontraditional child care cut across a wide swath of the Pennsylvania economy. These fields already endure high turnover, and lack of NTCC worsens the problem. Employees who can’t find flexible, reliable child care risk losing their jobs.

In this atmosphere, opportunities languish.

Employers offer good positions in second and third shifts, but potential hires must turn them down. Workers can’t move to take better jobs because they can’t leave their cobbled-together support systems.

Families striving for self-sufficiency should be standing on a strong foundation of support, but multiple cracks weaken the structure of nontraditional child care.

The report found that some employers offer family-friendly policies to meet NTCC needs, but many others fail to understand that parents need transportation, quality child care and predictable schedules if they are to succeed at work.

Availability is another issue. Throughout Pennsylvania, one regulated child care provider in four reports offering care before and after school, and on weekends and evenings. However, only one in 10 offers overnight or 24-hour care. Not surprisingly, availability is especially limited in Pennsylvania’s rural regions.

Then there’s the affordability problem, as seen in a waiting list in spring 2016 that topped 13,800 children for Pennsylvania’s Child Care Works. CCW subsidies combine with sliding-scale co-pays to make child care affordable for families up to 200% of poverty. Only one CCW-eligible family in 10 uses CCW to access NTCC while working families above the eligibility threshold struggle to pay for childcare.

Finally, there is the question of quality. High quality in child care is crucial to child development and school readiness. Demonstrable quality as measured by Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS rating system can be scarce in nontraditional care, where odd hours and low wages discourage the hiring of qualified staff and degreed teachers. As “Making it Work” notes, “There is a particular dearth of NTCC providers that both accept CCW and receive the top Keystone STARS rating of 3 or 4.”

Despite the challenges, policy solutions are in sight. They include financial incentives for providers, expanding the size and eligibility of subsidies, reviewing quality regulations, improving data collection and verification, and mandating or incentivizing family-friendly workplace policies.

As the report notes, we can “make it work” for Pennsylvania families and employers, and everyone wins. Parents commit wholeheartedly to the workplace. Employers forego the hiring churn and spend more time on generating quality products and services. And communities thrive through strengthened economies and families achieving true fulfillment and self-sufficiency.

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