Close to Home: The high cost of county’s child care crisis

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Recently, a Santa Rosa preschool that served over 100 families closed down. While a sudden closure would be a shock to any parent, it was particularly troubling in this instance because of the distressing lack of quality child care in our community.

It can seem at times that people use the word “crisis” too frequently given our experience with natural disasters and the appalling lack of housing. Deservedly, much attention is focused on the lack of affordable housing, a key factor in attracting young families to work, live, play and raise a family in Sonoma County. Rarely acknowledged is how critical the need is for affordable, high quality child care to recruit and retain families.

The number of licensed family child care providers who often care for infants and toddlers and are more likely to serve working families has declined by 22% since 2012, made worse through the loss of several hundred child care slots due to the fires.

And, while it is increasingly difficult for families to find the care they need to work in Sonoma County, it is even more difficult to afford that care. For example, with our average cost of $1,250 per month for a preschooler and nearly $1,400 for an infant, and two-bedroom rental prices around double that, an average family can easily spend 60% to 70% of their monthly income just on housing and caring for their family.

The unsurprising result of these high costs is an exodus of young people from our community. According to the California Department of Finance’s population projections from 2016, Sonoma County had 5.5% fewer children under age 5 in 2016 than in 2014. That downward trend is 10 times that of the state as a whole and appears to be even greater following the 2017 fires.

With an average of 15 people in Sonoma County retiring every day (approximately 5,500 people a year), the vibrant fabric of our community will quickly become threadbare without decisive action to attract and keep our working families.

To address the urgent economic issue that quality child care presents, First 5 Sonoma County has partnered with the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4Cs) to engage employers to invest in child care benefits for their workforce. Companies across the country, including Starbucks, Patagonia and Clif Bar as well as many small employers, are investing in employee benefits ranging from backup child care and assistance with finding and/or paying for child care to contracting with a provider to run an on-site child care center.

Robust research on the cost-benefit ratio of employer investments in child care has demonstrated a high return directly attributable to increased ability to attract and retain workers, improved employee morale, fewer sick days and increased productivity.

While the thought of doing so can be daunting, the data is clear that quality child care provides significant returns for employers and for our community. At the State of the County breakfast on Feb. 1, UCLA economist Jerry Nickelsburg remarked that Sonoma County has serious policy decisions to make to avoid an economic crisis. In particular, decisive action is needed to attract and keep our young families and workforce in place.

The Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, First 5 Commission and 4Cs are actively supporting employers in identifying feasible options to increase the number of child care options available to their employees that will result in a win-win situation for employees and our local economy, and we stand ready to help any employer that wants to contribute to the solution. If you would like to join us in this effort, please go to our website, santarosametrochamber.com/programs/employer-supported-child-care, to learn more.

Peter Rumble is CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Lynda Hopkins is a Sonoma County supervisor and a member of the First 5 Commission.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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