Whether you’ve been working remotely with your children at home every day or you’re an essential worker who’s had to figure out what to do when child-care centers closed, this pandemic has reminded all parents about the importance of child care.
When we do return to our workplaces in large numbers, we will face an unprecedented child-care shortage that will be a massive hurdle to economic recovery. Working parents simply can’t go to work if schools are closed and there’s no one to watch their kids.
The Seattle Times published an excellent editorial correctly identifying child care’s essential role in the economy [“Fixing child-care shortage and Washington’s economic recovery go hand in hand,” June 28, Opinion]. However, it didn’t go far enough in explaining why we’re here and the devastating impact slashing the state budget — as the editorial board has also recommended — would have on the fragile child-care system.
I understand the first instinct for many in times like this is to slash budgets. I was in the Legislature during the Great Recession when we decided to repeal bills, delay new legislation and deeply cut spending to balance the budget.
That approach proved to be wrong. Data shows that years of budget cuts actually prolonged the recession and delayed Washington’s recovery. The cruel irony is that our current child-care crisis was largely borne out of the policy and budget decisions we made in response to the last recession.
Even before COVID-19 and the massive job losses during this shutdown, a recent parent survey found that half of Washington families struggled to find, afford and keep child care. Additionally, nearly a third of respondents said they had quit jobs or left school or training programs because of a lack of affordable child care. Nearly 10% were fired because they couldn’t find or afford child care.
Not only is a lack of child care bad for families, but it’s also terrible for the economy. Researchers at Eastern Washington University estimate our child-care crisis costs businesses more than $2 billion a year and sucks about $6 billion out of Washington’s economy every year.
We could have fixed these problems years ago by raising the eligibility threshold for the Working Connections Child Care program so parents didn’t lose their child care if they got a raise or new job, or increasing child-care rates so centers and homes could afford to stay in business. But these ideas and other policies were delayed, deferred or outright abandoned because we were still mitigating the effects of the Great Recession through years of budget cuts and state belt-tightening.
We can’t afford to make those same mistakes again. Our state’s future is literally at stake.
It wasn’t just cuts and caps to child care last time. It was also fiscal decisions branded as “cost savings” that amounted to cuts or limited capacity for state food assistance (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Housing and Essential Needs (HEN), the foster-care system and other critical social safety net services — all of which had a devastating impact on both families and our state. These cuts don’t just represent less help for one family — it’s also less money in their pockets to spend at local grocery stores and other small businesses, which means fewer customers for those business owners, who then can’t hire more workers or give their employees a raise. It’s a ripple effect that disrupts our entire economy.
A report published by the Center for American Progress four years after the 2008 crash found that the 20 states that pursued austerity and budget cuts — including Washington — were doing measurably worse than states that increased spending during the recession. In states that increased spending, unemployment was lower, and their economies were growing faster than prerecession. In austerity states like Washington, the economy was still growing at a slower rate than it had been before 2008.
The lesson is simple: increasing investments in services and infrastructure and providing direct relief for workers, families, and small businesses injects money and demand back into the economy. You can’t starve your way out of a recession, but you can grow your way out of it.
So how do we grow? By finally doing something to tax the wealthiest households and corporations in our state. Because we have no means to tax income or wealth, Washington state is effectively a tax haven for wealthy individuals. It’s past time we address the most upside-down tax system in the country, invest in child care and other direct support for struggling Washingtonians, and save our economy.
I remember the last three weeks of the 2009 session, sitting in the Appropriations Committee. We were cutting the budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and voted on bill after bill after bill to repeal whole programs, limit eligibility and slash rates we paid for social services. We were “tightening our belts” and “living within our means” — and unintentionally helping prime Washington’s economy for an even deeper recession.
This time around, I urge legislators to make a better choice: tax the wealthiest people and corporations who can most afford it and have been largely untouched by this crisis, and invest in Washington’s recovery and its future. It’s the right thing to do for Washington, and the smart thing to do for our economy.