Catherine Hamilton: Child Care is Health Care

Woman and child laughing

This commentary is by Catherine Hamilton, Vice President of Consumer Services and Planning, about the importance of addressing the root causes that lead to health issues, which is critical to building a healthier population and community.

Addressing the root causes that lead to health issues is critical to building a healthier population and community. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we want to recognize one of the most challenging perennial issues for women: their children’s access to high-quality, affordable child care. High-quality child care is at the very root of what helps children thrive and develop into healthy adults. It has profound impacts on a child’s lifelong health and wellbeing, as well as a parent’s ability to be present and focused at work. There are 11,466 children under the age of ten who represent nearly 10 percent of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont (Blue Cross) subscribers. The families we serve give birth to over 1,000 babies per year, and so access to high-quality child care has a direct impact on our members’ social and cognitive development, health and wellbeing. 

From an early age, excellent child care can contribute to positive social development and to the success of our community’s children. When kids have trusted caregivers in their lives, they have infinitely more chances to succeed as productive, healthy adults. From eating reliable, balanced meals, to early support for social-emotional and learning challenges, child care professionals influence the course of each young child’s health journey. The pandemic laid bare the critical need for kids to be with peers on a regular basis, while being exposed to opportunities to learn to read, work on fine and gross motor skills that lead to early writing skills, cognitive function, and healthy physical development. Being in a high-quality learning environment also teaches kids how to be a good friend and citizen. All of these skills will lead them to being more productive, healthy Vermonters as they grow and thrive.   

Many people think wistfully of their own childhood where their mother stayed home, or when they spent their days with a grandparent. Today, women have the opportunity to contribute equally in the workforce and a thriving economy depends on it. 71.5 percent of Vermont’s kids have all parents in the workforce, yet three out of five of those young Vermonters don’t have access to a regulated child care program. As the body of research around early cognitive development grows, we are learning that the kids without access to safe and reliable child care are missing out. Research by Harvard University has shown that during the first five years, a million neurological connections are made every second in a child’s developing brain and 90 percent of the brain is fully developed by the age of five. 

When parents have reliable care for their children, they are more focused and present at work. “When I left work each day, I felt like I was going on a rescue mission,” said a member from Burlington, who was torn between being able to keep her job and caring for her infant. “When I finally was able to get into a better child care program, the relief was profound.” That mother’s gnawing worry was a constant throughout the workday, making focusing on her job a challenge. But when she was able to get into the new program, paying tuition became another worry. “At $1,120 a month, the cost of child care outstripped my student loan payments—it was more than our mortgage, but it was either that, worry about my baby all day, or leave my job.”

Parents of young children in Vermont often dedicate up to 30 percent of their income to child care. “My four-year-old needed the structure of full-time preschool, and my toddler was in a program just 2 days a week,” remembers a Blue Cross employee who lives in Montpelier with her family. “We spent $22,450 on child care the last year my daughter was in preschool. It was critical for my daughter’s social-emotional needs and so it wasn’t a question about not sending her, but every month we were living paycheck to paycheck. When she went to Kindergarten, we felt like we won the lottery.”

Child care is a critical workforce development issue for Vermont employers. Blue Cross is a local, non-profit company with 400 Vermonters who pride themselves on serving their fellow Vermonters. We support state policies that work toward ensuring that the 25 percent of our employees with small children feel less pressure because of child care expenses. We offer a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) to our employees that allows them to make pre-tax contributions to pay for child care expenses. Every decision we make balances the health and wellbeing of our outstanding people with our mission to keep our administrative costs as low as possible. The FSA account strikes a balance between those needs. Wherever possible, we offer flexible schedules to ensure our employees are able to be dedicated to their work without having to sacrifice the needs of their families. We are a Vermont company that takes work-life balance very seriously. It is critical for the mental wellbeing of our employees to know that their children are well cared for. 

No parent should have to make the decision between paying for child care and leaving a job. It is long overdue that we take a state-wide approach to child care policy. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont strongly encourages the Vermont Legislature to expand the Child Care Financial Assistance Program to ensure that every Vermont family can afford high-quality child care. In 2021, when Vermont needs a strong, reliable and dedicated workforce more than ever, working parents shouldn’t be forced to confront a decision to give up their job because child care is too expensive. 

Vermont kids’ social-emotional and physical health depend on the opportunities that their families can afford, and our employees depend on reliable child care. We as a state must do better to meet both of those goals. Please take action to pass H.171