Providing accessible, affordable, quality child care in Iowa requires collaboration

Iowa is facing two critical issues that threaten the state’s economic prosperity and hinder the hopes and dreams of Iowa families: a workforce shortage and a shortage of accessible, affordable, quality childcare.

These issues are interdependent and they are not unique to Iowa. But Iowa has begun to address them in a unique way, through nonpartisan collaborations designed to advance innovative solutions at both the local and national levels.

Iowa’s childcare crisis came into closer focus four years ago, when the Iowa Women’s Foundation embarked on a tour of communities across the state, meeting with community leaders, business executives, nonprofit directors, elected officials, and other stakeholders. We wanted to better understand the barriers confronting women on their way to economic self-sufficiency.

The need for more and better childcare was one of the largest takeaways from those meetings. Four years later, the problem has escalated nationwide, as well as here in Iowa. Today, 23% of Iowa families reside in a “childcare desert” — communities with more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

Left without accessible, affordable, quality options for childcare, parents are confronted with the difficult decision of whether to leave the workforce. The connection is clear: Lack of childcare impacts workforce development, which in turn impacts Iowa’s economic security. These issues must be addressed simultaneously. And the time for action is now.

We believe collaboration is key to making change happen — and we’re seeing it happen already. For example, the Iowa Women’s Foundation has partnered with other organizations around the state to launch the Building Community Child Care Solutions Collaborative. Through this network, 30 communities across Iowa are exploring novel ways to promote child care investments.

We are encouraged to see similar collaboration on the federal level, led by our elected Iowans. Recently Sen. Joni Ernst signed on to the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, which would provide competitive grants to support education, training, and retention of the childcare workforce. This bipartisan legislation will also help to build, renovate and expand childcare facilities in the many communities across Iowa with childcare shortages.

A similar bill also has early support from Iowans in the House. Rep. Cindy Axne and Rep. Abby Finkenauer were two of the first members to support this critical legislation.

Recently Ernst hosted a community event to hear more about the needs of Iowa’s families. Axne has hosted a similar roundtable to hear from community partners from across the state about early childcare and workforce development.

Our elected officials have been deliberate about wanting to include people in the conversation who have suffered the most in our state and to hear from those with innovative and feasible solutions that can be implemented sooner rather than later.

We are hopeful that between our community and elected leaders, Iowa can be a nationwide leader in developing collaborative approaches to address the childcare crisis sweeping the country.

Children are the most vulnerable members in our society, and we must be willing to come together to tackle this issue, regardless of political party affiliation. Doing so is essential to building economically secure families, a thriving state and a strong national economy.

Dawn Oliver Wiand is the Executive Director at the Iowa Women’s Foundation. Its mission is to improve the lives of Iowa’s women and girls by shattering the barriers to economic self-sufficiency.