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At a recent breakfast to raise funds for an early childhood center, a mother told a heartbreaking story about what it means to not have child care in today’s economy. Through tears, she said the only way she could make ends meet was doing online food deliveries with her baby tucked in a car seat. When she finally found high-quality child care for her baby, she got a better job in the health field and, in the end, it changed her life.

As a delegate representing part of Newport News in the General Assembly, I know that child care continues to be top of mind for my constituents. I heard it not only from my neighbors, but also from local employers, top brass in the military and even from the Richmond Federal Reserve, whose experts told me a lack of child care is hindering a return to full employment in our post-pandemic economic recovery.

The military is especially concerned and recently held a briefing on the “Economics of Early Childhood in Hampton Roads” in Norfolk. The organizers, the Hampton Roads Military Federal Facilities Alliance, are advocating for more child care options for military families and say Virginia’s economy loses $3.1 billion annually due to challenges finding care. With only 750 slots on base, our military depends on local communities to provide the extra child care families need. Military leaders are calling on lawmakers to think creatively to meet the child care needs of our military families in the region.

Due to this overwhelming need, Democrats were on a mission in this year’s General Assembly to make child care more accessible and affordable for Virginia families with an unprecedented number of bills and new investments designed to boost economic growth and full employment.

Virginia’s final budget approved last month provides historic investment in early childhood care and education, including $456.7 million general fund increases over the biennium to support our littlest learners. This includes more funding for the Virginia Preschool Initiative to get them ready for kindergarten ($157 million in FY25 and $156 million in FY26).

To increase access to early care and education in Hampton Roads, military leaders at the recent briefing suggested solutions such as incentives for starting new child care businesses, public investments in software to track child care availability across the state and streamlining local permitting for building new child care centers.

In fact, the Virginia legislature is already tackling some of these issues such as cutting red tape when it comes to building more child care centers. Del. Atoosa Reaser and I passed legislation allowing zoning waivers for new child care centers to open in office buildings. Another new law from Del. David Bulova creates a planning tool in the Department of Education to determine future child care needs in the commonwealth so that we understand funding gaps in child care and better support the needs of working parents.

Del. Phil Hernandez from Norfolk passed a law to make it easier for families to qualify for the Child Care Subsidy Program, which will receive $265.5 million in next year’s budget to provide quality early childhood care for 45,000 children in Virginia. This investment will replace pandemic-era funding from the federal government, making Virginia one of the first states to replace these dollars with state funds so as to avoid the “child care cliff” families have worried about.

In the Virginia legislature, it is clear to us we must aggressively expand child care to help working families advance careers and for our economy to prosper in Hampton Roads. We also know our families can’t wait. They are spending 26% of their income on child care and they need help right now.

Along with a need for more housing, child care is now a top agenda item for our families and the major institutions in our region. It is the secret ingredient for overall prosperity, getting people into the labor force as well as ensuring military readiness and retention. Virginia legislators are pushing for bold investments because we know parents need affordable child care to thrive and advance their careers with our biggest employers such as the military, shipbuilding as well as our health care and education systems.