One of the child care centers that the United Way of Southwest Virginia has worked with. Courtesy of United Way.

In a recent opinion column entitled ‘10 things Youngkin could do to help rural Virginia,’ Cardinal News Editor Dwayne Yancey mentioned ideas the governor, and, we assume in most cases, by extension, the General Assembly, could support for the benefit of the citizens of this end of the state. These ranged from the seemingly self-evident (funding for rural school construction and modernization) to the utterly necessary (endorse flood relief for Hurley – God bless you, Mr. Yancey).

We at the United Way of Southwest Virginia applaud Mr. Yancey’s column and share the spirit in which it was written. In addition, we would like to humbly offer one other priority for our region that deserves Richmond’s full support. This priority has the potential to strengthen economic development in the long term, to help area businesses return to pre-pandemic production levels in the short term, and most importantly, to help our region’s families prosper here. This priority is child care.

Over the last two years, the pandemic and the great resignation have pulled young adults, especially women, from what major employers were already calling an insufficient labor force.

At the same time, the economic downturn forced closure of several childcare centers in the region. Childcare centers face the same challenges as any business. Around eight in ten are currently short-staffed. And, while availability of slots in the region has declined, inflation and supply-chain issues have created a net increase in cost of care.

These twin economic impacts have drained the workforce of talented young employees and stunted the earning power of families.

To begin addressing this problem, the United Way of Southwest Virginia is asking Richmond to get behind a strategy, and a specific initiative. A budget amendment is under consideration in both the House of Delegates and the Senate which would utilize existing ARPA funds to begin funding a public-private partnership called Ready SWVA. The amendment is being carried in the House by Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (HB 30, Item 486, #11h) and in the Senate by Senator Todd Pillion (SB 30, Item 486, #15s).

The idea is simple, but as with most things, execution is a bit more involved.

Ready SWVA will create a system of five publicly-accessible childcare centers spread throughout the region, including a hub in Washington County and four spokes. Each of these centers will provide additional childcare slots in its community with a shared-services center in the hub. That center will operate as a shared back office for every existing childcare center in Southwest Virginia that wishes to take part, not just the spokes, creating cost savings and increasing efficiency.

To be clear, United Way of Southwest Virginia will not operate childcare centers. We will not become a provider. Through Ready SWVA, we will help develop space and facilities that private sector partners can operate and expand, creating greater capacity, opportunity for parent choice, and economic opportunity.

A few key points: First, though we are asking for Richmond’s support, this cannot be simply a government program. This is primarily about getting businesses back into position to create economic growth and jobs for our families. So, the private sector must play a key role in both the creation and execution of this strategy.

Second, the strategy must be sustainable in the long term. It cannot benefit only parents and large employers or it will fall like a two-legged stool. It must also address the issues facing the childcare providers themselves. Most cannot afford to pay their employees a living wage, yet we entrust them with our children. That having been said, if the government simply comes in and mandates a certain wage for childcare providers, then the increased cost of that care would have to be passed on to families. Soon, we would be right back in a situation where costs would keep families from utilizing the service. We’d only have raised costs while maintaining the problem. Instead, Ready SWVA creates the afore-mentioned shared-services model as a way to decrease other costs of running a childcare business in order to help make quality childcare centers more sustainable.

Third, this must benefit every part of Southwest Virginia. Our region faces a much greater childcare availability problem than the Commonwealth on the whole. It’s two to three times worse here, depending on which statistics you refer to. That means our economic recovery will be that much slower than the rest of Virginia’s unless we address our childcare problem.

We believe Ready SWVA will be a model to be replicated in rural communities across the Commonwealth and beyond. But first, we need to succeed in addressing the problem here. We have the support of providers, major private-sector employers, educators and local governments. Now, we ask Richmond to support our families, businesses and communities by supporting child care in Southwest Virginia.

Travis Staton is president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia.