West Virginia’s childcare desert

A Talkline listener texted me this past week about their problems with childcare. They work, so they need childcare, which is their largest single monthly expense. But if they quit work to take care of their children, they wouldn’t be able to pay their other bills.

That is a common conundrum, and it is from someone who has childcare which, unfortunately, is a luxury in West Virginia.

According to Kristy Ritz, executive director for the West Virginia Association for Young Children, “41% of children under the age of 6 cannot access childcare. Sixty-four percent of West Virginians live in a childcare desert and West Virginia ranks 50th in accessibility of childcare.”

This is a hardship for families, but it is also a detriment to West Virginia’s economic growth. Business and labor both agree the state needs to help.

“Affordable and accessible childcare is critical not only to a healthy workforce and families, but also to the state’s overall economy,” said state AFL-CIO President Josh Sword. “The most effective way to ensure working people remain in the workforce is to allow parents affordable access to childcare.”

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Vice President Brian Dayton concurs. “Childcare is one of the largest components of West Virginia’s low workforce participation rate,” Dayton said. “Addressing this issue in a meaningful way is pro-family and will help provide more opportunities in West Virginia.”

So, what can the state do?

Gov. Jim Justice, during his State of the State address back in January, called on lawmakers to pass a childcare tax credit, saying West Virginians “need this and need this badly right now.” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said childcare was one of his top priorities heading into the regular session.

But nothing happened.

Now Ritz is hoping the governor will put the issue on an expected special session in May, and her organization is gathering petition signatures to help drive home the point with Justice and lawmakers.

Ritz says the top priority is for continued funding of subsidies to childcare providers based on enrollment rather than attendance. That guarantees a higher and more consistent payment since attendance fluctuates.

That subsidy was added during COVID using emergency funds, but it is due to expire at the end of August. Ritz said without that subsidy, many childcare programs will cut services or even be forced to close.

Other options include tax credits for parents who use childcare and expansion of an existing tax credit to include small businesses if they offer childcare services. Speaker Hanshaw is interested in the Kentucky program that makes childcare employees eligible for free care for their children. (The childcare is free for the parent/employee, but the state pays the enrollment fee to childcare center.) That helped meet the demand for childcare workers.

Dependable and affordable childcare is a necessity. Gov. Justice and the Legislature cannot let another opportunity pass to address the issue for the good of families, the childcare centers and the state’s economy.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at [email protected].