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Port: 'Child care is the business that allows other businesses to do business'

If we want North Dakota to be open for business, we need to make sure our workers can find child care. We need child care workers as acutely as we need teachers and nurses.

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Child care providers, teachers and parents display signage to raise awareness as part of a national “A Day Without Child Care" event along Main Avenue and Eighth Street in Moorhead on Monday, May 9, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — We've got to change the way we think about child care.

This pressing policy concern was the topic of an excellent conversation we had recently with Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford on the Plain Talk podcast , and this was my takeaway.

Many of us, including this humble correspondent, think of child care workers as babysitters. But that perception isn't the truth. Child care workers are professionals who provide a deeply important service at the heart of our modern economy.

Gone are the days when it was possible for most families to subsist on a single income, with one parent staying home to provide child care. Modern families have to send both parents to work, but young families with young children can't do that without access to affordable child care.

Labor shortages have been a chronic problem for North Dakota for generations. Those shortages are particularly acute now, post-pandemic, and our ability to address them is hamstrung by the number of people who could be working except that they either cannot find or cannot afford child care.

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"Child care is the business that allows other businesses to do business," one of the panelists at a recent Chamber of Commerce event in Fargo said of this issue.

That's how we must perceive this issue.

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I'm concerned that our state's policymakers don't understand that.

Look at our lawmakers. Almost none of them have school-aged children.

Many of them come from a generation when it was still possible for a family to survive and thrive with one income.

They need to snap out of it.

This a real problem for North Dakotans today, and it needs a public policy solution.

We conservatives are inclined to suggest that access to child care is a problem for the market to solve, and while I think there is some red tape and costs we could clear away to make operating these businesses easier, the child care industry is facing a chicken and egg problem.

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They can't pay enough to attract a consistent supply of qualified workers — the average child care worker makes $11.61 per hour , just a titch more than my 14-year-old makes busing tables — and they can't pay more because the rates they're charging parents are already too high.

The average child care business is operating on a profit margin of about 3% . "The day care model is uneconomic," Sanford said during our podcast discussion . "It doesn't work."

We have to make it work, though we also need to stay focused. Many of the people talking about the child care problem seemingly want to solve it by extending the K-12 school experience down to infants. Sanford described colorfully it as backing "the school bus up to the maternity ward."

There's nothing wrong with that impulse, but the problem before us isn't education. It's access and affordability.

If we want North Dakota to be open for business, we need to make sure our workers can find child care. We need child care workers as acutely as we need teachers and nurses.

We've talked enough about this problem. It's time to start doing.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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