Nearly 40% of families with children in Hamilton County are struggling to pay their bills, and 1 out of 4 new parents in the workforce have to return to their jobs only two weeks after the birth of their child, according to a new study commissioned by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.
Among major industrialized nations, the United States offers the lowest level of parental leave and government support for child care of toddlers, spending less than 3.5% of the average amount per child offered among the 16 major industrialized nations around the world, the study said.
As most pandemic relief assistance is phased out this year, a new coalition known as United for Working Families is eager to help Chattanooga area families with young children, not only through United Way donations to nonprofits but by helping and urging employers to adopt more family-friendly policies and pay.
In a kickoff event for its fall fundraising campaign Tuesday, the Chattanooga United Way highlighted to local business and community leaders the value of investing in early childhood and helping parents with young children at work with everything from more flexible schedules and remote work to onsite child care and better health care benefits.
Up to 85% of brain development occurs in the first two years of life, and key to that development is having parents talk and interact with their young children, said Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon, author and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago.
"But during the most important period of brain development, too many families are forced to make do with whatever care they can find for their child," Suskind told several hundred business leaders gathered Tuesday at The Westin Chattanooga in downtown Chattanooga. "The result is that everyone is overworked, stressed and disconnected from family life at a time when it should be the most joyful."
In her book on "Parent Nation," Suskind argues that parents trying to shoulder the responsibility of early childhood care and education on their own while working to feed their family ends up being detrimental to the well-being of children, families and society.
In Tennessee, 48% of residents live in what Suskind called "child care deserts," where adequate early childhood programs are not available for working parents. Without the paid parental leave and health care support offered in most industrialized nations, many American families struggle to pay their bills and spend adequate time with their infant children.
"The more I talk with parents, the more I realize that our policies and social norms limit parental choice and too many families are struggling at the most important time for childhood development," Suskind said.
Hamilton County at a glance
— Population: 369,135
— Median household income: $66,069, or 10.7% above the statewide average of $59,695
— Labor force participation rate: 64%, compared with 61% statewide
— Share of ALICE (asset limited, income constrained for employed) households: 26%, below the statewide average of 30%)
— Households in poverty: 13%, the same as the statewide rate
In response to such concerns, a growing number of employers are offering parents of young children more flexible schedules, paid parental leave and other family support measures to not only invest in the current generation of workers but to aid in the development of the next generation in their community.
The United Way of Greater Chattanooga has begun working with The Best Place for Working Parents to help survey and measure local employers in how they are doing in a range of family-friendly practices for their employees. Employers who make such investments are generally more successful in recruiting, retaining and motivating workers, Suskind said.
The University of Chicago researcher challenged the business goal touted by Nobel economist Milton Friedman, also of the University of Chicago, who famously proclaimed that "the business of business is business." Suskind said aiding parents at work pays off not just for that business but for the community.
"Family friendly is business friendly," Lesley Scearce, CEO of the United Way of Greater Chatanooga, said Tuesday.
Among the 15 million U.S. workers who quit their jobs in the past two years, 45 % of those surveyed said needing to take care of family was a key factor in their decision. The lack of adequate child care is estimated to cost $94.4 million due to workers unable to stay and work in the labor market, Scearce said.
The Best Place for Working Parents rates employers on their flexibility, child care and family assistance, wellness benefits and overall economic stability. The study, which allows local employers to compare themselves with other firms and promote their family-friendly practices, is seen as a tool to encourage more help for working parents.
The initiative was endorsed by Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, who is expecting his fifth child in about a month. Wamp said investing in early childhood education and parental help is an investment in the next generation and will pay off for both families and the community.
"This is the most important conversation we will have in our county this year," Wamp said during a four-hour event at the Westin Hotel downtown. "This is a chance to have a somber conversation about some things that we don't do very well and the people, especially the small young children, who are being left behind."
There is a crisis in the lack of equal opportunity for early child brain development and a shocking lack of support for children under the age of 5, Wamp said.
The Hamilton County school district is working to improve classrooms and opportunities for school-age children, the county mayor said, but more needs to be done to help families support and nurture their infants and toddlers when most brain development occurs, he said.
Although pandemic relief programs helped limit the share of the population that fell into poverty in 2021, a new study still showed that 38% of Hamilton County families were either living below the poverty line or were economically challenged and considered asset limited and income constrained while employed in 2021. That was slightly below the statewide average in Tennessee but still includes nearly 10,000 households in Hamilton County.
United Way of Greater Chattanooga is hoping to use such data to help local employers find better ways to invest in local families, which will pay off for their own staff but also for the community and for future generations, agency officials said.
Initiative reflects the partnership role United Way tries to play in helping employers with programs, volunteer opportunities and other assistance beyond just the annual fundraising drive, Scearce said.
Dionne Jenkins, the vice president of corporate engagement for the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union and this year's campaign chair for the United Way, said she hopes to grow the donor base for individual contributions to Chattanooga's United Way from about 8,000 in 2022 to match the nearly 10,000 households in financial need in the county,
"I've been privileged to work with many community leaders over the past few months and been able to see how truly invested so many business leaders are in our community in making a difference," she said. "The United Way is a connector, and our hope is that coming together today is just the beginning in making a real difference for our community."