Progressive Voice: Scarce childcare thwarts jobs, future in Arlington

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Andrew Schneider

“I want to do a job, but I don’t have a babysitter. It’s too expensive.” That was the explanation from one mother about how the scarcity of affordable childcare affected her. In a recent survey conducted by Arlington Thrive, 41% of parents cited the lack of affordable childcare as a barrier to returning to work.

With barely half the capacity to serve children ages 0 to 5 years in Arlington, local childcare providers are simply not able to meet the needs of local families. This inability to access childcare can have a devastating impact on a parent’s ability to work. The resulting economic instability can lead to financial crisis, eviction and families being forced to leave Arlington to raise their families elsewhere.

In Arlington, infant care at a childcare center is more than $24,000 per year — roughly 20% of the median household income of $120,000 in Arlington. For families earning less, childcare costs represent a bigger burden, often requiring them to make hard trade-offs to meet their basic needs. One local parent said that during pandemic-related school closures, some childcare centers were charging more for one day of care than she makes in a week.

Arlington and Prince William have the lowest availability of licensed care in Northern Virginia. A recent study from the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia showed the economic impact of preschool enrollment disparity across income levels and race. Building on their recommendations and others, here are several ideas that could work in Arlington to improve the situation:

  • Help match families with openings through a clearinghouse or intermediary.
  • Increase the number of licensed providers and spaces by revising restrictive codes in favor of simple regulations that prioritize child health and wellbeing, providing support to programs through the licensing process, working with the faith and business community to identify facilities, and waiving local licensing and permit fees in exchange for fee-reduced spots;
  • Improve the overall quality and access to high-quality programs by subsidizing and expanding training and professional development for childcare workers; and
  • Provide direct funding subsidies to childcare programs to increase workers’ wages.

Arlington has a long history of innovating to address social challenges. Arlington Public Schools’ Extended Day after-school program was created in the 1970s to help women enter the workforce without having to worry about their children being safe from 3-6 p.m.

More recently, Arlington demonstrated a desire to improve access to affordable, quality childcare. With leadership from County Board Member Katie Cristol, the Child Care Initiative was established in late 2017 and made some progress toward this goal. Earlier this month, under Cristol’s leadership, the County pledged $5 million to develop affordable childcare options in Arlington. This investment will be an essential element in building more childcare capacity with the same innovative spirit that has become emblematic of Arlington.

Because of what we are hearing from the people we serve, Thrive is committed to supporting this issue and developing more long-term solutions. We are identifying successful models from around the country that might have some applicability to Arlington.

The availability of affordable, safe and enriching childcare options is linked to the economic health of Arlington. Without more childcare options in Arlington, families will face harsh realities as to whether they can remain in our community. For these reasons, we hope to engage our neighbors, nonprofit partners, funders, county leaders and others in thinking about childcare solutions comprehensively for children ages birth through 14.

Won’t you join us in this work to expand access to high quality childcare and enrichment opportunities? Solving this problem will go a long way in reducing financial crisis, and improving opportunity for all in Arlington.

Andrew Schneider was born and raised in Arlington County and has served as the Executive Director of Arlington Thrive since March 2016. He is the incoming chair of Arlington’s Continuum of Care, Co-Chair of the Arlington Interfaith Network and host of Arlington Voices on WERA.