RALEIGH — The focus of this year's legislative session, as indicated by numerous House and Senate members and leadership, is job creation. Rightfully so, given that unemployed workers still outnumber job openings 5.6 to 1. Even though our state's unemployment rate is slightly ticking down, our economic recovery is still a long way off.
Thus far, the governor and the Senate should be lauded for recognizing that the community college system is an essential tool in aiding workers in this economy. Fully funding community college enrollment, which has skyrocketed as laid-off workers have turned to education and skills-training to prepare them for new jobs, was a wise move.
But as the House budget writers furiously put the finishing touches on their budget proposal, lawmakers would do well to recognize an equally essential tool to keeping workers employed - access to high-quality, affordable child care.
After all, the focus should be on helping the nine out of 10 workers still employed to hold on to their jobs. Or at least have the supports they need to actually enroll in a community college training program if necessary.
If a working parent doesn't have reliable child care, it's nearly impossible to stay in their job, juggle classes or search for a new job. Last I checked, toddlers aren't exactly welcome in most workplaces or in job interviews.
But finding high-quality and affordable child care is no small feat. It's not news that child care costs are astronomically high - averaging over $8,500 annually in North Carolina. And for low-income parents struggling on wages around $20,000 a year, that means that over a third of their income gets sucked up by child care costs.
Enter a state child care subsidy program to save the day. Nearly 100,000 low-income working North Carolinians receive a voucher monthly to aid them in paying for child care. While lawmakers have largely protected the program from the devastating cuts that many other human services programs have faced, this is primarily because federal economic recovery funds have supplemented shrinking state funding.
But even then, current funding levels are far from meeting the need. More than 37,000 North Carolinians are on the subsidy waiting list - that is, they're eligible but can't access it.
It's a hard time to push lawmakers to expand funding in any program, given the grim budget situation. But if they're really serious about preserving jobs, child care subsidies should be an obvious priority.
And if expanded funding to relieve the child care subsidy waiting list is simply impossible, then there's a small, but meaningful step lawmakers could take this year to at least make child care subsidies more responsive to the needs of today's workers.
It's actually not a new idea. Lawmakers already passed it in last year's budget.
The final budget included a prudent provision that allowed recently laid-off workers to continue receiving their child care subsidy while pursuing new work and/or pursuing post-secondary education and training. Without this provision, workers who suddenly lost their jobs would lose their child care subsidy too - a double whammy that imposed significant barriers to finding new work and getting back on their feet. And those parents trying to gain new skills such as nursing would be ineligible for child care subsidies to aid them while attending classes.
Unfortunately, this year's Senate budget proposal repeals this critical special provision at a time when low-income workers desperately still need it. The House shouldn't make the same mistake, nor should lawmakers crafting the final compromise budget.
It's puzzling as to why some lawmakers are considering passing a budget that actually reduces access to quality and affordable child care when it's so intimately connected to job retention and creation.
At a minimum, the temporary provisions that extend child care subsidies to laid-off workers and those seeking education and training should be reinstated. But if lawmakers are really serious about focusing on jobs this session, they can start putting their words into action by recognizing the importance of preserving jobs for working families with children.
Louisa B. Warren is a senior policy advocate with the N.C. Justice Center.