As we continue our transition into a post-pandemic economy, it has perhaps never been clearer that the strength of our state depends on the health and welfare of our workforce.
Delaware made substantial investments in working families over the last two years, particularly the young families whose skills and talents will help us to attract major employers in the decades ahead.
We made paid family and medical leave a reality for thousands of working Delawareans, who will never again be forced to make an impossible choice between earning a paycheck and staying home to welcome a newborn or provide care for an elderly family member. We raised wages for some of our lowest-paid workers. We expanded access to a debt-free education at local colleges and universities, as well as nearby non-academic workforce training centers. And we made historic investments in our highest need public schools.
We made those reforms because they are the right things to do for our current workforce and for generations of future Delawareans. If we are going to build the workforce of tomorrow, we must pass policies that better support workers and their families today. That is why last year, as Delaware began to emerge from the depths of the pandemic, we joined together to call for the First State to learn the lessons of that once-in-a-generation crisis by adopting a robust cradle-through-career support system that supports workers, lowers costs for families, bolsters public health, and improves outcomes for children.
While we’ve made meaningful progress toward that goal, our work is far from complete, particularly when it comes to easing the burden many families face in balancing the demands of their job with the needs of their young children.
Simply put, access to affordable early childhood programs sadly remains out of reach for far too many.
The average cost of childcare for one toddler equals roughly 20% of the median family income in Delaware and only 1 out of 7 children ages 5 and younger are able to access publicly funded early care and education programs. Those costs are pushing many Delawareans — especially women — out of the workforce as they are forced to choose between a job and care for their children. Among families who sought affordable child care, mothers were 12% less likely to be employed if they couldn’t find an option they could afford. That percentage represents lost opportunities that those women deserve and talented workers that our economy desperately needs.
Creating a high quality, developmentally appropriate, and affordable early childhood education system in Delaware will not only stabilize our workforce by providing access to safe and nurturing childcare, it will also set up our youngest learners for future success.
Babies are born ready to learn and 90 percent of brain development occurs in their first five years. Children who participate in even moderate levels of quality preschool programs during this time period develop greater social skills and higher self-esteem. Research also shows they achieve higher levels of educational success, earn more over the course of their lifetime, and even experience better health outcomes.
While nearly all sides agree that Delaware should build a mixed-delivery early childhood system that works for providers and families, getting there won’t happen overnight, and considerable work is needed to get from the broken system we have now to one that will work for working families.
Despite the clear benefits, access to high-quality childcare services that work for both families and providers is still far too limited in Delaware. Right now, more than half of our state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are not receiving the early intervention services they need for their healthy growth and development.
While we’ve taken steps to stabilize our childcare subsidy programs, invest in educators, and streamline oversight of early childhood education. The truth is that making affordable early childhood programs available for all families requires our state to commit to meaningful investments and meaningful change in how we support parents and educators. That change will only come when we, as elected leaders, set out a bold vision and prioritize families. We’re committed to this work and to making Delaware the best place to raise kids.
The kind of cradle-to-career support system we need to position the First State as a competitive option for working families won’t be complete until high-quality child care services are available to all families. It’s the only way we can attract the workers of today and develop the workforce of tomorrow.
State Sen. Kyle Evans Gay represents the 5th Senate District and serves as chair of the Senate Elections & Government Affairs Committee. State Sen. Sarah McBride represents the 1st Senate District and serves as chair of the Senate Health & Social Services Committee. Bethany Hall-Long is the 26th lieutenant governor of Delaware and a Professor of Nursing and Joint Faculty in Urban Affairs at the University of Delaware.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware’s future demands investments in early childhood programs