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labor Addressing Climate Change Also Means Addressing the Child Care Crisis

This Earth Day, we don’t have to look too far to find examples of public policy investments in our future.

4 children sitting and squatting observing something in nature on the ground.
Children and Nature Network, LinkedIn

Far from centering the welfare of seven future generations, as directed by the Iroquois, we have let the mindless imperative of the profit motive shape our economy and public policies.  The result is that we short change our children and the future.  We invest far too little in children, wasting human potential with every year that passes, and face catastrophic climate change unless we take urgent action.  We can’t let the immediate need to respond to Russian invasion of Ukraine be so consuming that we fail to act this year to take better care of our children and to leave them a livable planet.

Early childhood education and care is not only a smart investment for our children’s future, but it also reduces poverty and economic inequality as well as race and gender disparities. It is the strongest economic development tool that we have.  Universal, free or affordable, year-round, high-quality child care is essential social and economic infrastructure for stable, healthy families and businesses – as has become apparent to many during the pandemic.  What’s more, it’s also a key driver for low-carbon post-pandemic economic recovery.  

Children under 5 have the highest poverty rate of any age group in the country, and child poverty is the primary indicator of future marginalization.  Yet, in 2019 in the U.S., all available parents of nearly 70 percent of children under the age of six were in the labor force, with little access to formal child care that, in many cities, costs as much as rent.  Decades of evidence provide a strong economic case for investments in early childhood education and care, but for spending on children and families relative to GDP, the U.S. ranks 37th of the 38 rich and middle-income countries in the OECD, trailed only by Turkey.  

The long overdue creation of a national program supporting preschool and childcare has been stalled by the undemocratically outsized voices of U.S. senators representing small, red states, as well as the largest corporations in these states.  Meanwhile, Canada – a nation similar to the U.S. in many respects – has committed to spend more than $9 billion a year over the next five years, to bring down the average cost of child care to $10 a day, and create thousands of new classrooms in public and non-profit facilities. Canadians see this effort not only as an investment in the future of their children and a great equalizer, but also as a way to reshape how we think about the future economy.

As we build new child care systems, they must be integrated into planning for climate change mitigation and adaptation.  We have yet to investigate what recent climate events, including extreme heat and cold, flooding, drought, smokey air and hurried evacuation from wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes have meant for children and their families, how our emergency management systems should be integrating child care, or how child care could be greener and more resilient in a changing climate.

Again, we can look to Canada for leadership on integrating child care and climate change policy.  The latest report by BC Coalition of Child Care Advocates and Early Child Care Educators show at least five ways in which child care and climate change policy can intersect, and how these forward-looking policies can improve health and wellbeing of children, families and workers, while contributing to a pro-climate/environment culture and sustainable clean economy for all. 

If the U.S. government can’t enact a strong program for child care and climate change this year, states and localities will have to lead the way.  We can’t wait any longer.

Mary C. King is a Professor of Economics Emerita at Portland State University. Ito Peng is a Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Rianne Mahon is a Distinguished Research Professor at Carleton University.

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