“The New River Valley is an official child care desert, as designated by the Center for American Progress,” Bethany Mott told me. Bethany is the Executive Director of a new organization here in Montgomery County called, ABCs, the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies, and she’s trying to fix that.
I met with her in my office to talk about how well, or in this case, NOT well, we’re taking care of our youngest citizens, those from infancy until they enter kindergarten.
“ABCs is a new non-profit that is the result of a two-year working group, a committee out of (Virginia) Tech and other concerned members of the community who realize there is a crisis in child care.” She said our situation is common, but worse here than many places. “There is only one child care space for every five children under the age of five. There are about 5000 children and only 1100 spaces. The other children are being shunted between relatives or informal situations, or being taken care of by a parent who isn’t working.
“So it’s an economic development problem because those parents might want to be working. And it’s an educational readiness problem because the children aren’t ready for kindergarten. Children who aren’t ready for kindergarten when they start may not be reading by the third grade. Statistics are grim about whether they’ll graduate from high school and have a successful, prosperous life.
“With our current system, funding (for child-care) only comes from one place: tuition.” In other words, parents are paying for child-care. There is no societal contribution, for example from the state or federal governments. “It typically costs anywhere from $700 to $1200 per month. Given the median income of Montgomery County residents, many simply cannot afford that. Thirty-six percent of local families live under 200% of the Federal Poverty Limit. So they would have to spend 40% of their gross income on quality child care for a preschooler and one year-old. Nobody can do that. So there’s an industry conundrum.
“It’s a highly regulated industry to provide our children with safety and education. ABCs has a three-fold mission. First, we will create more capacity. We want to keep our young adults here. So we need more capacity. Second, we want to improve quality, both in childcare facilities and in in-home providers. We are working with Virginia Quality to support education of the childcare workforce and the Chamber of Commerce on recognition, granting an ‘Early Childhood Educator of the Year’ award. And third, we’re working on affordability. We’re launching a scholarship program to help working families that are above the poverty limit and don’t qualify for assistance but are still unable to afford quality child care.”
But this is a private market, we agreed. Like other businesses, childcare centers need to be successful financially. Running a facility has many expenses, mainly the staff.
The state provides funding for some poor families for child-care through a state grant program. But the family may still struggle to find a provider or may be put on a state waiting due to lack of funding.
“We want our children to grow into successful adults, contributing to society and paying taxes back into the system,” Bethany said. “Our community has a vested interest in preparing these children. We also have a vested interest in helping families climb the income ladder.”
“Is there anybody who doesn’t understand this readily,” I asked innocently.
“Yes,” she shrugged. “But it shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s a rational economic issue.”
I said, “We’re moving into a high-paced, global, highly competitive, technologically based economy. If our kids can’t compete, we have no future.”
“Exactly,” she agreed.
I listed a bunch of traditional industries that once fueled the economies of our region. Textiles. Furniture. Coal. People want these things to come back. But they won’t. Communities that don’t recognize the terminal demise of these industries are destined for failure. Communities that accept these realities have a chance for success. ABCs is promoting adequate quality childcare as a necessary foundation for future success.
We talked at length about other models worldwide, where the government took a more active role. Here, the government funds education K-12, but before, in child-care and afterwards in college, you’re generally on your own. Those become personal economic investments rather than societal. Bethany ended our conversation with “ABCs is established to help working parents have choices and access quality childcare. ABCs is strengthening our local childcare infrastructure to enable families to work and children to be prepared for kindergarten. It’s about economics, quality of life, and our future. “
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.