As Washington gets back to business, many job-seeking parents of young children face a frustrating double bind. Even if they do find employment that will help them provide for their family, the short supply of quality, affordable child care makes it impossible for them to take the job.

Nearly half — 47% — of unemployed parents cited lack of child care as a barrier to re-employment in a May survey, according to a state Child Care Collaborative Task Force child-care industry assessment. Since March, more than 1,100 licensed child-care providers have at least temporarily closed, exacerbating a shortage flagged by state lawmakers long before COVID-19.

A new state Department of Commerce grant fund will help seed local solutions to this thorny problem. The $1.5 million fund won’t be nearly enough to ensure universal access to quality affordable child care, but it’s a start.

The fund will award grants of up to $100,000 each for collaborative community-based efforts that expand child care, particularly to underserved populations. Eligible applicants include nonprofit organizations, local governments, educational service districts and federally recognized tribes.

Washington’s child-care shortage is not new. In 2018, Washington had only enough licensed child-care capacity to serve 17% of the state’s children, according to a November 2019 report from the task force. In the same year, lawmakers formed the task force, organized under the Commerce Department, to help make affordable, high-quality child care available to all Washington families by 2025.

The task force has issued more than two dozen recommendations for stabilizing the child-care industry, increasing employer supports for child care, streamlining permitting and licensing requirements, and reducing disparity in access to care.


Even before this spring’s upheaval, nearly half of Washington parents reported difficulty finding and keeping affordable child care. Twenty-seven percent reported leaving a job, school or training because of a lack of consistent, affordable care, according to a Department of Commerce report.

This is not just a problem for working families; it is a drain on the state’s economy. Commerce estimates that employee turnover and missed work due to child-care issues create an annual $2.08 billion drag on the state economy. That number triples when figuring in opportunity costs.

Addressing Washington’s child-care shortage will not be easy, especially during the tough economic times ahead. But quality, affordable child care is a linchpin to the state’s economic recovery. More must be done to ensure this essential sector does not fail.