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Peter Abbarno: We must improve child care systems

Peter Abbarno: We must improve child care systems

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Editor's note: Peter Abbarno is a Centralia, Wash., Republican running for State Representative in the 20th Legislative District, which includes parts of Lewis, Thurston, Cowlitz and Clark counties.

COVID-19 and stay home orders have changed our lives forever. I don’t like using the cliché term “new normal” because we want to return to some semblance of the “old normal.” However, the crisis magnifies problems that need to be solved. In particular, child care.

As a father of school-aged children, husband of a teacher, business owner, Centralia Mayor pro-tem, and candidate for State House of Representatives, a universal concern expressed is lack of child care and the impact it’s having on parents, businesses and our economy. The lack of accessible and reliable child care isn’t a new problem.

In 2011, my wife, Holly, and I had our daughter, Sophia. Seventeen months later, we had our son, Antonio. It was in those moments, holding our newborn, that we made the promise to them, and to ourselves, that we would do more to improve our community. All parents want to more local opportunities to be successful.

As a younger family, we struggled finding reliable child care. My wife was working as a waitress and attending college. I was a new associate attorney with student debt up to my eyeballs. Child care was tough; we made too much for free child care, but not enough to live beyond paycheck to paycheck.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no substitute for strong families with solid parent/child relationships. While home child care with a parent may be ideal, not every family can afford that choice. A quality child care system allows parents to work, build careers and contribute to the economy. At the same time, it allows children to socialize, learn and prepare for kindergarten. We’ve been able to balance it, but for many low-income Washingtonians and single parent households, their choice is either work to provide for their families or stay home on government assistance.

A recent Washington State Department of Commerce and Child Care Collaborative Task Force report confirms that even before the pandemic, more than half a million children lacked access to licensed child care. While 61% of young children live in households where both parents work, our state only has licensed child care capacity for 41%. In Cowlitz County, that leaves a 640 capacity gap.

Child care has been historically over-regulated and under-incentivized, leaving capacity gaps and families fending for themselves. Not everyone qualifies for the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program or Head Start and there isn’t always capacity. During the pandemic, that problem has been magnified.

Child care and early learning is important and necessary. Approximately 90% of a child’s brain develops in the first five years. Studies evidence that children who receive high-quality child care and kindergarten preparedness earn 33% more income over their lifetime, 30% are more likely to graduate from high school and 70% are less likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

In addition, the lack of child care cost employers $2.08 billion in direct costs and $6.5 billion in direct and opportunity costs to the economy. Nearly one in five parents surveyed turned down a job offer or promotion due to child care issues and nearly half (47%) of unemployed parents found child care issues a barrier to seeking employment.

Now, with schools closed and the economy restricted by stay-at-home orders, nearly half of Washington’s licensed child care providers report they are at risk of closing permanently. Parents like us are scrambling to figure it out. The loss of child care and early learning programs are significantly hurting working families at all levels.

Luckily, several years ago, I joined state representative Richard DeBolt and other community leaders to work on a local solution. One idea we developed was the United Learning Center (ULC). The ULC is a public-private collaboration between the United Way of Lewis County, Discover! Children’s Museum, Boys and Girls Club of Chehalis, City of Centralia, and others to create an Early Learning Center/Boys and Girls Club/Children’s Museum/Community Center that can help address the needs of our children, students, families and employers. The ULC can help reduce intergenerational poverty by providing child care and educational opportunities that lead to financial independence for students and parents. We are hoping to break ground by the end of the year.

There isn’t just one answer or idea to solving these complex issues. Communities are diverse and have specific needs. A one-size-fits-all government “fix” doesn’t and hasn’t worked. We need more local collaborations, like the ULC. Almost 10 years ago, I promised to work on solutions for my family and community. As your next state representative, I promise to continue working on solutions to address the concerns of working families and small businesses in the 20th Legislative District and throughout Washington.

Editor’s note: Peter Abbarno is a Centralia, Wash., Democrat running for State Representative in the 20th Legislative District, which includes parts of Lewis, Thurston, Cowlitz and Clark counties.

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