More available funds to support the child care industry will be a big benefit, especially in rural Minnesota where child care issues were at a crisis level before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Gov. Tim Walz’s office recently announced that Minnesota child care providers have begun applying for monthly direct payments to stabilize their businesses as part of a $300 million state grant program that will last through June 2023.

Funding for the program is coming through the federal American Rescue Plan and is intended to enable child care providers to boost pay and benefits for their workers as the Minnesota economy continues to recover. The grants are part of a $563 million effort to bolster the state’s child care market, primarily with funding from the federal plan.

Another key change starts in November, the governor announced, when the state will raise reimbursement rates for the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps 15,000 low-income families gain access to child care. Additional stimulus funds in the program totaling $55 million are estimated to reach 4,000 more children during the next three years.

Child care remains an essential service for many families who rely on it so that parents can continue working. It has always been that way, but the pandemic has magnified that point. If health care providers, grocery cashiers and meat plant workers don’t have reliable, affordable child care, they can’t do their jobs that we all relied so heavily upon in these last 16 months or so.

So the grant money is welcomed and needed. But a cloud looms over the boost in funding. What happens when the pandemic-related support runs out? As The Free Press reported in April, data compiled by the nonprofit First Children’s Finance estimates Mankato’s child care shortage at about 732 slots. St. Peter is reportedly short about 255 slots, while Waseca is lacking 318 slots and New Ulm is short 166 slots.

If southern Minnesota wants to keep attracting workers to the area to fill numerous job vacancies, quality child care must be available, and it must fairly compensate its workforce. It doesn’t matter if a couple can land secure jobs if they don’t have anyone to take care of the baby when they are at work. And if child care providers can’t make a living wage in the business, they don’t have a reason to stay in it or expand to meet demand.

The industry for too long has operated on skinny budgets, relying on underpaid staff, mostly women, without any systemic support. Minnesota lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have recognized the child care crises and were chipping away at it before the pandemic started.

This infusion of federal aid, however, shouldn’t be considered the answer. The money will run out and the long-term issues will remain without more action between then and now.

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