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Opinion | Unleashing Alabama’s workforce potential: The urgent case for child care

Access to safe, affordable child care should not exist behind a velvet rope.

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“I had never heard of the ‘Motherhood Penalty’ – where women’s pay decreases once they become mothers – until I became a mother myself. My penalty came in the form of a difficult decision during the happiest moment of our lives. Due to increasing costs and decreasing availability of child care, I was forced to decide between keeping a job I love and caring for my child.”

This is Emily Cook’s story. Unfortunately, Emily—who calls central Alabama home—ultimately exited the workforce. And her story is far from rare. An estimated 85,000 families are facing similar circumstances. For far too long, thousands of Alabama moms and dads have been forced to make the decision to sacrifice income for their children’s care, essentially pushed onto the sidelines and out of the workforce.

And while access to quality and affordable child care is the specific barrier at hand for Emily and the thousands of parents like her, what’s at stake is far more complex. At stake is intergenerational economic mobility for hardworking Alabama families.

You see, Alabama’s economy depends on women. Over 74 percent of women in Alabama serve as breadwinners, meaning they contribute at least 40 percent of the household income, highlighting their crucial role as essential contributors to their families and communities.

The science clearly shows that women are the demographic most likely to face underemployment, unequal pay, and restricted access to family-friendly workplace benefits, hindering their full participation in the workforce and the formal economy.

This is a reality even more harshly underscored by the fact that Alabama ranks nearly dead last in the American South in labor force participation for women. Not closing these opportunity gaps robs all Alabama workers, families, and communities of stable and viable economies.

Any state, including Alabama, that prioritizes removal of barriers to intergenerational economic opportunity for women and families will gain the competitive advantage. Period.

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And that’s exactly what members of the Alabama Legislature have the opportunity to do during this year’s regular legislative session—starting with child care. 

The Alabama Child Care Tax Credit plan, backed by Women’s Foundation of Alabama, Manufacture Alabama, and nearly 40 other employers and trade associations, can move Alabama closer to a world where parents are not forced to choose between being a good parent and a good employee. A watershed moment where the industry of child care is valued equal to its seismic multi-billion dollar impact on the state’s economic activity.

Here’s how.

The State of Alabama is no stranger to utilizing tax credits and other incentives as a strategy to spur economic development. Under the proposed plan, the industry that keeps Alabama working – child care – would be treated no differently. 

The proposed three-pronged plan aims to incentivize employers and child care businesses to make child care even more accessible to Alabama workers and families. Over the next five years, if fully phased in, the potential impact could cover an estimated 58,000 families.

The employer credit aims to incentivize businesses by offsetting child care costs and enhancing employee retention thus driving Alabama’s labor force participation. Employers are positioned to use the tax credit to offer on-site child care, stipends for their employees, and even reserving a spot at a licensed facility – each an attractive option for any working parent.

Child care owners and operators, most of which are small, women-owned businesses, will also benefit from the proposed tax credit plan when they participate in Alabama’s Quality Rating and Improvement program administered by the Alabama Department of Human Resources. Their costs as business owners would be offset and increase in value as they enhance quality and based on the number of children served who are enrolled in the Alabama child care subsidy program.

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And for parents who choose nonprofit child care providers – including licensed, religious options – there’s also a benefit to those business owners. Under the proposed plan, nonprofit child care providers would be able to use dedicated incentive funds to hire more staff, improve operations, and expand both capacity and quality.

Alabama state leaders have already shown a propensity to fight for care options for working families, from making high-quality pre-k more accessible, to ensuring safer child care options for all. If the proposed Alabama Child Care Tax Credit plan makes it over the finish line the impact could be felt in every corner of the state—potentially impacting the economic mobility of tens of thousands of Alabama families.

Now, that is an investment that will pay dividends.

As the leader of Women’s Foundation of Alabama, I along with a chorus of thousands more are calling on Alabama state lawmakers to think big, act big, and invest big in the exponential power and economic possibility of women and families by voting YES on Alabama Child Care Tax Credit plan, House Bill 358. 

Access to safe, affordable child care should not exist behind a velvet rope. It should be a bedrock from which Alabama parents can support their families, not be a barrier to overcome. If ever there was a time for change, that time is now.

Alabama families are counting on it.

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