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Child-care advocates say if North Dakota doesn't boost funding for the system, more families might pull out of the workforce because of access issues.

BISMARCK — A portion of American Rescue Plan funding sent to North Dakota has yet to be divvied up. Groups that want to improve the child-care system say the state shouldn’t miss an opportunity to boost access and affordability.

Some of the funds North Dakota received from the federal pandemic-relief package in March already have been spent or set aside, but there’s still room to distribute roughly $700 million of the aid. April Fairfield, a member of the North Dakota Children’s Caucus. said dedicating substantial funding for child care should be a priority.

“Many areas, many communities, rural and urban in North Dakota, lack accessible and affordable child care,” she said. “So, we are looking at the American Rescue Plan as a way to fortify that and to really try and get North Dakotans back to work.”

She said more aid would help with worker shortage issues.

Next week, legislative committees will hold more meetings on what to do with the remaining funds. Gov. Doug Burgum’s priorities include matching grants for employers who offer a child-care benefit, but Prairie Action ND has said his plan commits only 2% of funding to address the crisis and looks to the Legislature to change that.

Xanna Burg, the Kids Count coordinator for North Dakota, said the statewide average child-care cost for an infant is 13% of a family’s budget. She said she thinks that’s a good place to start in committing federal funds.

“We’re really calling on the state to think about investing that same amount — 13%, or $130 million — towards child care, to really address better access for families, making child care more affordable for families, and also helping child-care businesses pay their workers more than poverty-level wages.”

She said failing to boost child-care workers’ pay could force more providers to close, creating economic harm to the state. Earlier this year, a Kids Count report said 14 North Dakota counties meet less than 60% of the child-care demand for working families. Votes are expected during next week’s committee meetings to advance proposals for the Legislature to consider in special session.

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