How better access to child care could help Travis County’s economy

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Increasing access to child care in Travis County is one of several priorities included in a report from a group of consultants intended to improve the economic climate in the area.

County commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to adopt and start implementing the plan. The process to develop the countywide economic strategy started in 2017, and the consultants came up with nearly 60 individual recommendations to help Travis County attract and keep businesses.

Access to child care is a priority for families, and the report suggests it should be a priority for local companies, too. 

“We want to make sure that we keep this area affordable so people can come here, live here and work here all at the same time,” Travis County public information officer Hector Nieto said.

Two-thirds of U.S. kids under 5 in a household where both parents work, but finding affordable care that’s either close to home or close to work can be a struggle.

Dr. Judy Szilagyi remembers it well from raising her daughter in Travis County in the ’90s. “I worked and my husband worked,” she said. “I had her on a list for child care before she was born.”

Her daughter is now married and thinking about starting a family of her own, but Szilagyi says the shortage of good care options hasn’t improved. “As a grandmother I may be in the same place, looking for child care for my granddaughter.”

Szilagyi is now the education manager for Child Inc., the company that runs Travis County’s Head Start program, which provides care and education for low-income families. The group operates several care centers around Travis County, but they’re just as strapped for space as private daycares and preschools.

“We have at least a minimum of about 400 children on the wait list” in Travis County alone, said Beverly Davis, Child Inc.’s program operational manager.

The economic development strategy lays out recommendations to help ease demand on child care centers, including incentivizing companies to provide on-site care for employees, but even with financial incentives, it can a costly proposition for a business.

“Sometimes there’s not enough children to make it feasible financially within the workplace,” Szilagyi said. “That’s where collaborations and partnerships come in.”

Indeed, another recommendation from the consultants’ report is that in some cases, businesses in the same area look into co-owning child care for employees of all their companies to use. 

The report also recommends establishing some kind of loan program, as well as a training and support system, for entrepreneurs who want to start a child care center. The final suggestion is for the county to continue looking into using county-owned facilities to offer child care with established providers like the YMCA.

Commissioners will have to vote before any of those ideas becomes policy. If they vote in favor of adopting the economic development strategy, county staff will then start figuring out ways to implement the recommendations.

But regardless, Szilagyi believes it takes a village to raise the bar on child care.

“I think it’s going to take the state and the federal government and private business,” she said, “and it’s going to have to become a priority.”

You can find a full copy of the draft report in the Commissioners Court agenda here. Look for item 19.

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