Women shouldn’t have to choose between child care and post-secondary education | Opinion

As we reflect on the end of the 2023 Tennessee General Assembly, Tennesseeans everywhere have to face a stark reality; the world was watching during this last session, but for all the wrong reasons.

While we may be a divided state in some areas, the reality is clear: we must find areas of agreement around meaningful legislation that improves the lives of all Tennesseans. A great place to start is to look at how we ensure more women and girls are able to attend post-secondary education. One way to get to that goal is by making sure childcare is less expensive and more readily available.

In our state, nearly 1 in 6 women live in poverty. Women currently are more likely to have low-wage jobs, are paid less than men, and have fewer economic opportunities in general, all while serving more frequently as the primary financial support for their families.

We know that post-secondary education of some kind (attending four-year colleges, two-year degree programs, community colleges or vocational schools) is vital to economic success for our families, our communities and the state. The median salary for Tennesseans five years after completing a high school diploma is only $33,858. College graduates, on average, earn 1.5 times more than that.

But the cost and accessibility of child care make it almost impossible for some women to pursue that path. In Tennessee, the average annual cost of center-based child care is more than $11,000 for infants and $10,000 for toddlers. According to the 2022 State of the Child Report published by The Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth (TCCY), the cost of center-based care for an infant and four-year-old in Tennessee is 81% higher than the average annual rent across the state.

In Knox County specifically, the average family will pay 30% of their total income toward childcare for two children under 5 years old. That doesn’t leave much for a woman looking to obtain a degree as a nurse, computer programmer or social worker, especially combined with all the other expenses they face.

Local organizations, nonprofits and even some colleges are working to find ways to make childcare more affordable, accessible, and supportive of mothers and families. But to truly make a meaningful impact we need everyone pulling in the same direction.

In Knox County, The Restoration House provides single-parent families with housing and resources that will soon include a child-care center for infants to preschoolers open to others within the community. Similarly, across the country, more and more community colleges are opening childcare centers so their students don’t have to compromise between pursuing their degrees and raising their families.

The reality is this problem affects all of us. In 2022, Tennessee lost $2.6 billion dollars due to insufficient childcare. When women cannot go to work or advance their education due to lack of childcare, families don’t just lose, so do our communities. 53 out of the 66 highest-demand occupations require some type of post-secondary education. We are losing out by not providing adequate childcare support for women.

This article was originally published on knoxnews.com on July 10, 2023.

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