Letter: There are signs of hope to relieve child-care pressures

To the Editor:

Our local workforce has learned many hard lessons over the past year, adapting to the COVID health pandemic. Scott Holland tackled a major, but little discussed issue, in his March 9 column, “Reliable, affordable child-care a must for stable workforce.”

“Whether grocery clerks or medical imaging technicians or utility specialists, we’ve all learned `essential worker’ means if those people aren’t on the job, the rest of the economy slows or stops,” Holland wrote, referring to child care providers — a business sector supporting all others.

It’s not a new realization, of course. Locally, working parents and their employers have long felt the pinch of child-care issues. It even appeared in a 2018 national report that mapped the extent of child care “deserts” across the country. Of nine U.S. Census tracts in the Ottawa area, seven were classified as deserts, greatly lacking capacity to meet area needs; in the western reaches of our community, there were 40 children for every single, licensed child care slot available.

Then came COVID. Among other things, it brought important — but expensive — safety protocols for early childhood providers to maintain. Child care pressures mounted.

Thankfully, we’ve also seen signs of hope. Federal and state resources have combined to extend Child Care Restoration Grants to many providers in Ottawa and La Salle County, serving as a short-term lifeline in recent months. More such help is on the way, and — as Holland noted — state officials continue work on lowering the co-payments that low-income, working parents face for child care assistance.

And looking to even longer-term needs, a bipartisan, statewide commission has spent a year studying ways of improving Illinois’ funding and governance of early childhood programs, to boost their adequacy and equity. Members of the ReadyNation network of business leaders, such as me, believe policymakers should take its recommendations very seriously.

“Affordable child care was an issue before the pandemic and will be one after — in any place where people have jobs,” Holland wrote in his column. The Ottawa area is certainly no exception. Let’s get to work!

Jeff Hettrick, Executive Director, Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce