After a harrowing year, we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. COVID-19 cases are trending downward, vaccinations are up, businesses are re-opening and children are venturing back to school. But as Greater Minnesota communities look ahead to the post-pandemic future, a stubborn barrier to economic recovery remains: a dire lack of available child care.

This problem is not new. Even before COVID-19 came on the scene, greater Minnesota was short 40,000 child care spots. In Rock County, we need nearly 200 more spaces to meet demand. Ely needs 140. Child care spots needed in a sampling of greater Minnesota cities:

  • Austin, 700;
  • Brainerd, 668;
  • Crookston, 245;
  • Duluth, 1,266;
  • Mahnomen, 141;
  • St. Cloud, 1,461;
  • St. Peter, 255.

The pandemic caused more upheaval in an already unstable industry. Providers were hit with major income losses as families pulled their children out of child care and business costs increased as providers adhered to new guidelines.

As communities look to reopen and repair theireconomies, addressing the child care crisis is vital. Workers cannot rejoin the workforce unless they have safe, reliable child care. Likewise, our cities cannot attract new businesses and families unless we have a strong child care system.

The child care crisis is a multi-layered problem. Child care workers endure long hours, often for low wages and no benefits.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and Greater Minnesota Partnership are pursuing several bills this legislative session that aim to meet the most immediate need, which is to encourage more child care providers to join, and stay in, the industry and create more child care capacity.

CGMC and GMNP are seeking $20 million in state funding, to be matched by $20 million in local funds, for the Greater Minnesota Child Care Facilities Grant Program. This program, established but not funded in 2020, provides grants of up $500,000 to local governments to help cover the costs to construct or expand child care facilities. This funding would assist with start-up and infrastructure costs, which are a major barrier to building new child care facilities in Greater Minnesota.

CGMC and GMNP are also seeking additional state investment in existing programs: Minnesota Initiative Foundations child care grants and DEED child care grants. Both of these programs, though different in scope and mission, aim to support child care providers with business development assistance, annual licensure and training assistance, and building community-centered efforts to address local care shortages.

As lawmakers in St. Paul look for ways to build back the economy, we urge them to invest in child care initiatives that will help stabilize the industry and create more options. Our state cannot reach its full economic potential until we address the child care crisis.

Baustian is mayor of Luverne and a board member with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Heidi Omerza, a member of the Ely City Council and president of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, also contributed to this column.