As a police chief, a retired brigadier general, and a retired CEO, the issues that matter to us might not look interconnected. What many people may not realize is that concerns that seem to be completely different on the surface level, like crime prevention, military readiness, and the economy, are deeply intertwined. Deep-rooted problems that affect one can have drastic effects on the others.
Fortunately, that connection means that solutions to one problem can have a positive effect on others. That's why the three of us joined the membership groups that comprise Council for a Strong America. We recognized that, by bringing our unique perspectives together, we can advocate for one such comprehensive solution: increasing the accessibility, affordability, and quality of child care in Arkansas.
We are facing a child-care crisis in our state. According to a recent Council for a Strong America research report, parents in Arkansas have to face several hurdles in order to ensure their children are cared for while they are at work.
The first obstacle is finding a child-care provider for their children. While this is difficult for all families, child-care options are especially limited for families who have infants and toddlers, with only 10 percent of these young children having access to high-quality care.
For those families who can find care, the next obstacle is being able to pay for it. Infant care in Arkansas centers averages $7,498 per year, which represents more than 9 percent of the median annual income of a married-couple family in Arkansas.
Finally, even if a family is lucky enough to find an affordable child-care provider, they face yet another hurdle: quality. Child care is more than just babysitting: Young children need quality care from certified providers in order to set them up for success in school and beyond.
Unfortunately, only two-thirds of Arkansas licensed child-care programs participate in Better Beginnings, the state's quality rating and improvement system. Of those, only a little over one-third of programs are rated at the top level, leaving many parents having to deal with sub-optimal child-care options.
This lack of access to affordable, quality child care has negative repercussions that affect crime rates, military readiness, and our economy.
Research shows that quality child care supports children's cognitive, social, and emotional development. One study of more than 1,300 children found that children in higher-quality child care performed better in school and had significantly lower levels of behavior problems than children in lower-quality child care. These behavioral issues can eventually lead many children down the wrong path toward crime, harming those around them and putting a greater strain on our justice system.
By providing children with high-quality early learning opportunities, we can help put kids on the right path and stop crimes from being committed in the first place.
Helping kids avoid behavioral issues and do better in school also bolsters our national security. Currently, 74 percent of Arkansas youth are unable to qualify for military service due to educational deficits, health issues, substance abuse, and crime. Without improvements to the child-care system to help our kids at their most critical time for brain development, our military risks having an even smaller recruiting pool in the future.
The lack of access to affordable, quality child care in Arkansas also exacts a huge economic toll on our state. According to a report by the bipartisan business leader group ReadyNation, the child-care crisis costs Arkansas an estimated $348 million per year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. These losses hurt businesses, but the loss of earnings for working families means that many can see their children locked in a cycle of poverty that can leave them vulnerable to crime and disqualification from military service.
It's an unfortunate reality that there is no silver bullet that will solve all our problems. However, fixing child care in our state is a great first step. State, federal, and local policymakers must promote families' access to affordable, high-quality child care, particularly for infants and toddlers.
Support for high-quality child care is an investment in our future national security, public safety, and economic well-being.
Hugh McDonald is the retired president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas and a member of Council for a Strong America's business leader group ReadyNation. Sonny Stover is chief of police in Morrilton and a member of Council for a Strong America's law enforcement member group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Brigadier General Charles Martin, U.S. Army Reserve (ret.), is the executive director of the Homecare Association of Arkansas and a member of Council for a Strong America's retired military leader group Mission: Readiness.