If these uncertain times have taught Kentuckians anything, it is to value the essential services that so many of us took for granted. We might have never stopped to imagine a day without toilet paper or cleaning supplies, but we quickly realized the importance of our grocery workers when they filled their shelves. We might have never known what a blessing good health is until we depended upon our doctors and nurses to care for us and our loved ones. And we might have never known how vital child care is to our productivity until we had to choose to go back to work, or stay at home to care for our children.

Unfortunately, that last point is a choice that all too many Kentuckians must make. Even before the pandemic, 50 percent of all Kentuckians lived in a child care desert, with limited to no access to child care. Sadly, that percentage is only expected to increase.

In urban and rural communities across our Commonwealth, 14 percent of Kentucky parents quit a job, did not take a job, or greatly changed their job due to their lack of access to child care. These dismal numbers represent more than an inconvenience for individual parents. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Kentucky families made an estimated $15,000 less than the average American household in 2019.

It is no coincidence that because our commonwealth lags behind in adequate child care for our workforce, the standard of living for our residents is in decline, our cities grow poorer, and our statewide economy suffers.

It’s time Kentucky got down to business; the business of child care. Kentuckians rightly hold our small business owners in high regard. Small business entrepreneurs are our friends and neighbors and they make our cities and towns vibrant places to live, work, and play. Child care is the small business that supports all small (and large) businesses. It is the critical, essential economic infrastructure that is missing from far too many communities in Kentucky.

A simple solution to this problem is to incentivize community entrepreneurs to open family child care centers where child care access is limited or not available. Family child care is a small business in which someone cares for up to 6 kids in their own private home, while adhering to health and safety guidelines. This type of regulated child care serves parents, such as first responders or hospital staff who work odd hours, offers parents care closer to home, and due to its small size, is a good option for infants or children with special needs.

Starting a family child care home makes good business sense. The demand is high, the supply is low, and because family child care operates from one’s residential home, it greatly reduces startup cost. Many large scale child care businesses grew from humble beginnings in an entrepreneur’s living room.

Unfortunately, the number of family child care homes across Kentucky are in sharp decline. In the last ten years, family child care homes have fallen from over 600 to less than 300 across the state. We must work to incentivize this essential small business that makes it possible for parents to enter and remain in the workforce.

Currently, family child care operators are eligible to apply for up to $2,500 in start-up funds from the Kentucky Division of Child Care, but local zoning barriers are in the way of growing this much needed industry. In a recent survey conducted by Kentucky Youth Advocates, 1 in 4 of current family child care providers identified local zoning protocols as being a major barrier while starting their businesses. Many noted that the maze of public comment periods, committee meetings, zoning fees, and local politics turned them away from operating essential child care services in their communities.

One way to reverse this trend is for mayors and other city officials to modify zoning or licensing requirements to incentivize the rapid development of new child care programs in residential areas. Leaders must ensure that local zoning barriers are modified so child care entrepreneurs can build, children receive the quality care they deserve, and parents can get back to work. Without an adequate child care infrastructure, Kentucky communities will continue to lag behind our peers in attracting more economic investment opportunities and Kentucky parents will continue to delay getting back to work.

Child care is the business that supports all others.

Let’s get down to business, Kentucky!