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EDITORIAL: Child care is key to Iowa's pandemic recovery

Gazette - 3/30/2021

Mar. 30—The COVID-19 pandemic has not affected us all equally. More than a year in, it's clear that women carried the heaviest burdens.

Some advocates are calling it the "women's recession." Even as economic indicators are bouncing back as COVID-19 cases decline, women's pandemic-related job losses linger.

American women's workforce participation rate dropped to 57 percent as of January, the lowest point in 33 years, according to a recent report from the National Women's Law Center. Around 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, compared to about 1.8 million men.

The disparity is the product of a long history of sexism in the American economy and culture. That can't easily be legislated away, but we have to try.

One way to help empower women who want to work is to bolster child care availability. That was a pressing issue in Iowa before the public health crisis hit us a year ago, and it's even worse now.

The child care shortage and the workforce gender gap are closely linked issues, and the pandemic compounded them both. With schools closed last year, there was a surge in unmet demand for child care.

At the same time, some parents without child care — especially women — left their jobs to take care of their kids. Women also are overrepresented in some of the sectors most impacted by the pandemic, including child care and education.

Nearly a quarter of Iowans live in a "child care desert," where there are not enough child care spots to meet demand. Iowa's economy loses nearly $1 billion annually due to the child care shortage, according to a Chamber of Commerce study conducted before the pandemic.

For several years, Iowa policymakers and advocates have been talking about the need for more child care options. This editorial board has repeatedly listed it among our top priorities for state and local officials to address.

"It's an issue we seem to tackle every year, but we have yet to come up with solutions that not only resolve the immediate needs of working parents but create a long-term sustainable system," Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a news conference this month.

Maybe this could be the year when the Legislature finally passes meaningful solutions.

Iowa lawmakers this year have advanced a series of overwhelmingly bipartisan child care bills. If they earn final approval, they would be a significant step forward for Iowa's children and working families.

House File 712, House File 606 and House File 370 would offer incentives to businesses that host child care centers or offer assistance to employees. House File 301 would establish a matching grants program for workforce and child care projects.

House File 292 would increase provider reimbursement rates under the state's child care assistance program.

House File 302 would establish a graduated phaseout of child care assistance. It's meant to address the "child care cliff," whereby parents whose income increases abruptly lose state aid, making them worse off financially.

Importantly, Iowa is taking a collaborative and multifaceted approach to its child care shortage. Taken together, these bills aim to create more child care spots, raise reimbursement for current providers and offer assistance to more families. They would leverage federal, state, local and private funds to make it happen.

The governor's Economic Recovery Advisory Board listed child care as the top issue for strengthening Iowa's economy as we emerge from the pandemic. Reynolds this month signed an executive order to create a Child Care Task Force, made up of business and nonprofit leaders tasked with proposing child care policies.

We are glad to see Reynolds highlighting the issue, but we also know state task forces are sometimes graveyards for good ideas. We're hopeful this group will churn out workable solutions, but the state shouldn't wait for their report, which isn't due until June. Their recommendations won't matter if we don't have a Legislature willing to take bold action.

Iowa lawmakers should swiftly pass the bipartisan child care bills that have already earned support from one legislative chamber this year. Next year, they can expand on that progress with the Child Care Task Force's recommendations.

Iowa's success depends on women and families. It's past time to take action to support them.

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