As Governor Murphy unveiled his budget proposal last month, the wide-reaching impacts of the coronavirus pandemic took center stage. As state legislators and others begin to discuss how to best spend fiscal resources to help our state recover from a very difficult year, they should consider a surprisingly valuable investment opportunity: quality child care for infants and toddlers.
Out of the tragedy of the current public health crisis has come a recognition of the essential nature of the many services that we all rely on, on a daily basis. Whether they be postal workers, grocery store clerks or medical professionals, like those I work with, it is long overdue that these essential workers receive our gratitude and as important, our support. Child care providers are similarly essential. They are important, not only to the thousands of children and working parents across New Jersey but also to the businesses and employers and taxpayers of this great state. We all benefit from a strong state economy and access to quality early learning environments and child care is a critical element of a strong economy.
I am not solely relying on anecdotes or news headlines when claiming that child care is important to many New Jersey residents. Thanks to new research conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, we know that New Jersey families with infants and toddlers’ reliance on child care is higher than the national average.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we also now know that during the first three years of life, infants and toddlers experience incredibly rapid brain development, with 1 million new synapses forming every second. Developmentally appropriate activities and nurturing relationships, like those found in quality child care settings, can help to shape these neural connections and have a positive impact years later.
While a person’s first job interview seems far off at age 3, the years of early childhood are a time when children acquire the foundational skills needed for 21st-century jobs, including both cognitive and social-emotional skills. As a senior human resources executive, I know that strong communication and teamwork can make or break an employee’s success.
All of this research points to quality child care as an incredibly smart investment for the state to make today that will pay dividends for years to come. When infants and toddlers have access to quality programs that help them develop healthy habits and positive cognitive and social-emotional skills, they are set up for success in school and in life. This can help save the state tax dollars spent on remedial education, welfare programs and even health care. Access to quality child care also gives our state’s citizens reason to live here in our beautiful Garden State. Parents want and increasingly demand quality early learning environments for their children. Those who can, will and do move to where that quality access exists. Increasingly, the companies they work for are doing the same.
As we look ahead to revenue streams that will support our state’s future budgets, child care has a role to play there as well. According to a report from ReadyNation, the lack of access to quality, affordable child care for infants and toddlers before the pandemic cost New Jersey an estimated $1.7 billion in lost earnings, productivity and tax revenue each year.
That is a significant amount of money to leave on the table.
While there is a clear need for access to high-quality child care across the state, unfortunately, about 40% of New Jersey’s municipalities qualify as infant-toddler child care deserts. This demonstrates that we have a long way to go before every child that needs somewhere safe to be while their parent works has that place available to them.
The recent extension of pandemic-related child care assistance programs by the Department of Human Services is an important first step in ensuring that child care providers can safely stay open for the families that need care right now. Some of these short-term fixes, such as higher subsidy reimbursement rates and payments based on enrollment rather than attendance, should be considered as permanent solutions to strengthen New Jersey’s child care system in the long term.
I am eager to see us return to a more familiar and comfortable way of life when the time is right. However, even after a return to “normalcy,” we should not forget what a valuable investment quality child care is for our state’s working parents and the economy as a whole.