MOORHEAD-If Fargo-Moorhead area employers want qualified employees it's crucial they understand the importance that affordable, quality child care plays in the decisions families make.

And the time for the community to invest in child care is now, according to several speakers who presented at an "Eggs & Issues" breakfast in Moorhead Tuesday, June 5, that was hosted by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

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"Families are deciding whether to join the workforce based on child care," said Thomas Hill, community impact director with the United Way of Cass Clay.

Hill's comments and those of other speakers underscored the stress workers and employers alike face when affordable, quality child care is not available, and it was estimated that thousands of households in the Fargo-Moorhead area face a gap between the cost of child care and what they are able to afford.

United Way of Cass Clay President Kristi Huber said many people underestimate the cost of living in the Fargo-Moorhead area and it can potentially be a stumbling block to attracting workers.

She said supporting ways to help people pay for child care could make the area standout when it comes to recruitment efforts.

"This is the long play, child care is that differentiator," Huber said.

One solution, United Way officials said, is a child care scholarship program the agency has helped put together that provides financial assistance to low-income working families.

Over the past five years, about $500,000 a year has gone toward the program and currently about 75 scholarships a month go to families to help them bridge the gap between child care costs and what they are able to afford.

Huber said the agency wants to see that program double or quadruple, and even then there would still be unmet needs.

"We know there are 4,000 kids out there who could benefit from this," Huber said.

Pam Palmer of Bright & Early North Dakota, an agency that evaluates and rates child care providers who voluntarily take part in the program, stressed that children who have access to high quality and affordable child care are less likely to become incarcerated or be on assistance once they become adults.

She said the $7,000-$15,000 cost of child care per year pales next to the annual cost of housing a prison inmate, which she said is estimated at about $38,000.

By seeking ways to make high-quality child care available to more families "we have the potential to break the poverty cycle," Palmer said.