Community Building: You might never have heard of Benson, Minnesota, a pretty little town of 3,200 on the banks of the Chippewa River. But there are Bensons scattered across North America, small communities trying their best to get by.
In 2018, 13 Ways founder Doug Griffiths and I travelled to Benson where we met with officials and business leaders and held town hall meetings where we talked with hundreds of residents. We had conversations with everyone from shopkeepers to retirees to high school students. To help Benson achieve its goals we looked at the town from every angle to see what it had and what it needed. More housing? Better roads? Nicer aesthetics?
And then on a visit to the local school, it hit me: childcare.
Attached to the school was a day care centre with a couple of workers and about 10 infants. It was an impressive little facility but represented pretty much the whole day-care industry in Benson. As the mother of two small children, I see good quality childcare as a crucial part of a vibrant community, especially if you want to attract young families to your community. However, too often childcare is thought of as a social issue or a “women’s issue” or something not thought about at all. The reality is childcare is an economic issue. Put another way, childcare is economic care.
That was my bottom-line advice to Benson for community building invest in good quality childcare.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover the local newspaper, the Swift County Monitor-News, picked up on my advice with an article entitled, Daycare could be key to Benson’s growth: “Thomson pointed out that the most important thing to young couples is their children. They’ve read the literature that says the ages from birth to 18 months are the most critical in a child’s development. That makes quality daycare essential and parents will pay a lot, move to new communities, and drive long distances for it.”
Thus, when the community put forward plans for a new school, it also put forward plans for a bigger childcare centre. In fact, the plan was so popular that it spread far beyond Benson as Doug discovered while attending a municipal communities convention in Las Vegas. A representative from Minnesota told Doug the state was incorporating quality childcare into its economic strategy because of Benson’s plan, or what I like to call its economically enlightened strategy.
The COVID pandemic laid bare the importance of childcare. There were often occasions when all childcare providers had to be shut down and half of the workforce couldn’t show up at their jobs. Suddenly, those who insisted childcare was a social issue realized it was an economic issue. Or more appropriately, it made us aware that childcare is an economic issue, not just an issue for women or individual parents and families.
Governments started paying attention, too.
In 2021, in the second year of the pandemic, the Canadian government announced a new plan to reduce licensed childcare fees to just $10 a day by 2026. After months of negotiations, the federal government worked out tailored-made plans for each of Canada’s provinces and territories. Estimated budget for the program: $30 billion.
Don’t think of it as a cost but an investment.
Last summer, Dr. Gordon Cleveland, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and expert on the economics of early childhood education gave an interview to the Canadian Economics Association about how the $10/day childcare plan will help families and boost women’s involvement in the workforce. “There will be an impact on women who are of labour market age currently, as well as girls in high school, or even earlier stages of schooling, as it could impact their decision making, and the talents they try to accumulate, as they see that childcare is widely available and low-cost.”
Dr. Cleveland called the plan a “change in the basic institutions of our society.” However, he had a caveat. The plan might prove so popular as to outstrip the various governments’ ability to keep up with demand: “We know that there will be a big expansion in demand, and almost all of the positive impacts of the plan that we’ve talked about for women and girls, depend on the rapid expansion of capacity. The weakest part of the bilateral agreements between the provincial and territorial governments, and the federal government, is their failure to effectively deal with the rapid expansion of capacity.”
The lesson here is that it is not enough to simply talk about the importance of good quality childcare or even plan to introduce good quality childcare. We have to make sure our talk and plans actually lead to the implementation of good quality childcare for as many families who choose to take advantage of it.
If your community is recognizing the value of childcare to the economic well-being of your community, keep this in mind: childcare is not one dimensional. There are three different dimensions to consider when trying to ensure you attract or create the appropriate childcare to help with your community building.
First there is affordability. If the childcare is too expensive it’s not accessible. Lower income families will at times struggle to make ends meet and in some cases they will pay their entire extra second salary to childcare which is a disincentive to enter the workforce.
The second dimension is quality. For the most impactful community building, childcare settings must incorporate components of education. It’s no longer enough just to make sure that your child gets healthy snacks and is kept warm and safe. As a former teacher, Doug saw for himself how kids arrived at grade one in very different states. Some were ready for learning while others had a lot of catching up to do. Quality childcare means the child gets the educational and mental stimulation they need to get them ready for the day they enter school.
As Dr. Cleveland pointed out, the third dimension of using childcare for community building is supply. I firmly believe this is critical. Even if you have quality childcare that is affordable you will have a problem if, say, only half the spaces you need are available. There will be competition for those spots. In some cases, parents in highly skilled professions may choose not to work because they cannot access good childcare. In any event, the data suggests in this scenario wealthy and middle class families will get the upper hand. Conversely, lower income families will suffer disproportionately. The consequence of their children, left with poor quality care, has long-term impacts for society. And on a personal level it is heartbreaking.
There is another aspect to this issue. Our society might be evolving when it comes to traditional gender roles but lack of childcare tends to affect women more than men. Women simply carry more of the burden when it comes to looking after children. That’s not fair but it is reality. As a result, women will never be equal partners in the professional world unless the trifecta of childcare is a priority. We talk about our dwindling workforce but frustratingly we have a skilled workforce ready and willing to go, which cannot participate fully because of the need for childcare.
I need to be clear that not everyone wants to work outside the home. That is a personal decision and I fully support parents who choose to stay at home with their children.
Once the town of Benson recognized that childcare was an economic driver and a great asset to community building
, they worked to grow their capacity and made the promise that if you lived in the community you will have access to childcare. They couldn’t initially promise it was going to be affordable but said there would be accessibility for anyone who lived in the community. It turned into a huge economic driver because the promise of having access to childcare was critical to so many families.
All three of these dimensions are critical in order to ensure that childcare helps your community address its economic and social challenges and opportunities. There’s an old adage that says you can have it good, you can have it fast or you can have it cheap but you only get two of the three. This adage, though, does not apply to the three dimensions of childcare. We need all three to make it work.
And we need to make it work for our children, ourselves, our society and our economy.