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Nature & Nurture: Caring for Our Children and Community

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By Tom Moore, JCF Volunteer

Jefferson County is a child care desert. Child Care of Washington reports there are only 166 licensed child care slots for the 962 children under the age of 5 in the county. This represents a decrease of 303 spots from 2015 to 2020, while the number of infants born to local families over the past three years has ranged from 166 to 199 annually. Based on these numbers, Jefferson County has child care capacity for only 5% of all children 0-3 years old. With 65% of families having parents working outside the home about 625 of the 962 children under the age of 6 are left needing child care. In addition, between 2015 and 2020, Jefferson County lost five licensed child care programs.

Making this situation even worse, a recent study by Lending Tree found a 55% increase in child care costs per child in Washington during the pandemic, with the statewide average annual cost of child care rising from $11,744 to $18,237. The study also found Washington households allocated on average 14% of their income toward childcare. For Jefferson County, whose 2019 median income was $55,127 per household and $29,678 per individual, parents face the prospect of paying an even higher percentage.

These statistics are nothing new to local healthcare and education experts. Dunia Faulx, Director of Population Health and Care Transformation at Jefferson Healthcare, states it clearly: “We’ve been saying there’s a problem with childcare in this community for the last 10 years, but COVID shined the light on the issue. When the schools shut down, when child care centers shut down and all of a sudden people aren’t going to work, it’s huge problem.”

Even as society begins to open back up, supply is struggling to catch up to demand. Currently, Jefferson County has four child care centers and just four in-home daycare programs. As Dunia explains, “When you understand that 50% of an individual’s health is formed in the time between conception and the first 1,000 days of life, you want to address those early infant years.”  Research indicates if proper child care is given, children will grow into adults with higher IQ levels, lower risk-taking behaviors (smoking, alcohol and drug abuse), better health outcomes and will provide for a better economic bottom line. For every $1 spent on high-quality early childhood programs the return on investment (ROI) to society is estimated to range from $2.49 to $10.83.

Bringing that ROI back closer to home,  Dr. Molly Parker, Family Medicine Specialist and Chief Medical Officer of Population Health at Jefferson Healthcare, believes, “if we are interested in making an impact on the fundamental health of our community – 40 or 50 years down the road – we need to put the focus on early childhood education – both for building up the health and strength of those children as they grow, but also supporting the family nature of our community. Unless people, families, can afford to live and work here, they won’t.”

Put into this larger economic and social context, it becomes clear the nature of a community and the nurture of its children are closely intertwined. Stated another way, how will parents even be able afford to live and raise healthy children in an area like Jefferson County?

Between March 2020 and April 2021, Jefferson Community Foundation allocated over $105,000 to youth and families services through the COVID Response & Recovery Fund to local nonprofit organizations, including First Step Family Support Center, Cedarbrook Early Learning Center, Early Childhood Services at OlyCAP, and the YMCA of Jefferson County. The fund also supported solution finding to issues surrounding the housing crisis, equity for women and girls, and supporting local creative entrepreneurs.

These efforts help, but JCF knows they are not nearly enough. It has been heartening to see increased state and national efforts focused on families and on child care. In particular, Lynn Keenan, Community Organizer at the Clallam County Economic Development Council for the Child Care Alliance Project points to Governor Inslee’s signing in May of the Fair Start for Kids Act.  She believes “it’s a huge act – one that touches many levels of child care needs.” On the national level, over the past year there has been historic investment in child care from Congress with the passage of three COVID-19 relief packages providing over $50 billion in dedicated relief funds to the child care sector. The most recent package, the American Rescue Plan Act, included $39 billion for child care efforts.

While there is money flowing from the top down, it still takes time and energy to increase child care capacity on a local level in terms of in-home capacity as well as larger child care centers like the proposed early learning center for 40 children aged 0 to 5 located in Port Townsend currently being explored jointly by Jefferson Healthcare, Olympic Peninsula YMCA and Peninsula College. As Lynn explains, “It’s task intensive starting a child care center. The licensing, building codes, safety requirements are all there for good reasons, but it’s so complex to meet all of them. There are advocates for child care – the educators, doctors, trained early childhood professionals – all passionate people, but the business of child care can be so onerous and it can wear people down. It definitely requires local work and ingenuity.”

Dr. Parker agrees with the need to get creative and stay local to solve the problem. “Whoever builds these programs needs to be pretty responsive to the community, in no small part because our community is so small. We’re quirky here, with really diverse needs and interests.”  Dunia Faulx also remains optimistic in her belief that “there are definitely steps that we can take immediately that dont require a ton of money, but really just buy in from the community.”