by Michele Engh, Chair, Kickapoo Collaboration, and Director of Faith Formation, Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church
Wisconsin’s working families are in trouble, because Wisconsin’s child care industry is in trouble. When parents can’t find or can’t afford child care, that’s a problem for them and their employers. When we reformed welfare in the 1990’s, child care was recognized as an essential work support and crucial to economic development. Economists have been clamoring ever since for a greater public investment in early education. More recently they’ve been joined by neuroscientists who look beyond today’s workforce needs to the children themselves who will be tomorrow’s workforce. Public policy has a lot of catching up to do; what we generally hear is some variation on “there’s just no money to fix the problem.” This then has become the narrative we’ve adopted: Resources are scarce, so just make do.
But here’s what “making do” looks like: child care providers, especially those with the required qualifications, are leaving their jobs to work at local convenience stores where the pay is better; child care programs are closing, sometimes one room at a time, despite the need for more child care slots; quality of care is sacrificed because family providers are choosing to be unregulated in order to retain their clientele who can’t afford to have the cost of regulations moved into their pocketbooks; communities who want to retain their young families and offer family-supporting jobs are losing the fight; and those within the child care field are sparring over meager resources rather than coalescing around a coherent political strategy. This problem is universal, but is most evident today in our rural and small town communities, some of whom are experiencing what’s being called a “child care desert” – no available child care because no back-up plan exists when a local child care programs closes and the nearest alternative is many miles away.
But at least one local community is working hard to create a new narrative. Rather than accepting the story of scarcity, they are looking to the abundance of local talent and expertise, unwavering community pride, and generosity of citizens. Meet the Kickapoo Collaboration Core Team. Initiated in February 2014 as a grassroots community partnership, the team began meeting under the umbrella of Wisconsin Partners, a group of statewide associations. Wisconsin Partners believes in breaking down silos by building relationships among citizens to pave the way to work collaboratively on areas of shared concern. Here’s the good news. Because of its impact on workforce and economic development, child care in the Kickapoo Valley is a shared concern among area schools, churches, local government, non-profit and business leaders alike.
The Kickapoo Valley encompasses communities as large as 4000 and as small as 400. Yet interests as diverse as those of large employers like Organic Valley and Vernon Memorial Hospital join with those of a local cheese shop retailer, banker, auto shop owner, school teachers, and ministers. They sit at the same table strategizing on how to best address their community’s need for quality child care. The strategies they are discussing—like providing incentives for providers to become regulated, developing shared services among child care programs, leveraging community connections and resources, purchasing of child care slots for employees, and more – may not totally solve the problem, but they go a long way towards ensuring safe and healthy environments for the children, more productive employees, and community stability and wellness.
We will still need broader public investment, but perhaps this approach is what creates the political will to get there. If more communities around Wisconsin embraced this collaborative approach, we would change the narrative about scarcity to a new one that highlights the abundance of creativity to make change happen that benefits us all.