What would happen if you needed child care to go to work, but there wasn’t any available? For many families, this has been a harsh reality that remains unresolved. And what does this mean for our community?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge setback for the field of early child care and education. Children’s centers were closed, and when they could reopen, there were more than 115 new regulations that came from the California Department of Social Services’ Child Care Licensing Program.

As many industries experienced throughout the pandemic, the regulations and guidance changed constantly. For a field that serves children, for whom stability is essential, this disruption has serious consequences.

People used to think of child care as “women’s work,” meaning unskilled and unpaid. But times have changed radically. Extensive research on the human brain has established that the early years, 0 to 5, are the most developmentally important time in a person’s life.

Quality care by trained professionals in a rich and developmentally appropriate setting supports parents in assuring that their young child’s foundation is strong, and that they are ready for future success in life.

This is what we call “kindergarten ready.” Young children who have had plenty of time and space in a play-based curriculum for the first five years are then socioemotionally and developmentally ready to be successful in the routine of an elementary school setting, where their school day is mostly teacher-directed and focused on academics.

This is particularly true for children from low-income families, where early, quality child care and education can make all the difference for their future.

But parents and caregivers are struggling to access the basic necessity of quality child care. Across our community — and country — early child care teaching positions are going unfilled and remain undercompensated.

CommUnify runs the 23 Head Start and Early Head Start centers in Santa Barbara County, and currently 12% of the teaching positions in our Children’s Services division are open, and have not been filled for months.

We have families on our waiting list whose children are ready to begin the valuable Head Start program, but their classroom is closed because there are not enough teachers to staff it.

The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2021 that the average wage for child care workers in the United States was $13.51 per hour, for a vital workforce that is mostly women and disproportionately women of color.

In Santa Barbara, the wage is not much higher than the national average and falls well below our cost of living. Although 70% of CommUnify’s Children’s Services budget is set aside for staff salaries and benefits, the funding we receive from the federal government only permits us to pay wages averaging $20 per hour.

This is unsuitable for teaching positions that require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Many, in fact, have master’s degrees.

Quality child care is as important as it is expensive, and many families cannot afford to pay the tuition fees necessary to access quality child care. It is important that Santa Barbara County’s infant, toddler and preschool teachers be paid enough that they can survive in our community.

With close to 20% of the county’s residents living at or below the poverty line, low-income families need our political support for more subsidized programs to give the young children of working families an equitable start.

Even more important, children who are able to participate in high-quality early education and child care programs like Head Start and Early Head Start show fewer behavioral problems, less hyperactivity, are more attentive and less aggressive. They are also 31% less likely to engage in criminal activities as young adults.

Every child who participates in quality child care and early education programs is an investment in Santa Barbara County’s future. It really does come down to our willingness to invest in their development now or pay the consequences later in poor academic performance, behavior problems, mental health issues, gang involvement and violence.

Let’s stand together as a community and commit to providing the resources needed to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their potential. After all, when they thrive, Santa Barbara County thrives.

Patricia Keelean is CEO of CommUnify, a nonprofit organization empowering Santa Barbara County’s most vulnerable families, children, teens and seniors through education and coordinated services so they may achieve economic stability, improve overall well-being, and thrive. Click here for more information about CommUnify’s 16 programs or call 805.964.8857 for assistance. Follow CommUnify on Twitter: @CommUnifySB. The opinions expressed are her own.