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In Our View: Regardless of its ranking, Washington can improve

The Columbian
Published: January 20, 2024, 6:03am

The important thing is not whether Washington is the fifth-best or the 48th-best state for working parents. The important thing is where improvement can be found.

According to a survey released this week by SelectSoftware Reviews, Washington is the fifth-best place to live for working families. The study ranked each state based on child care affordability, public school rankings, maternity-leave policies and cost of living.

That stands in sharp contrast to a 2020 ranking by Zippia, a job-search website, which had Washington as the 48th-best state for working families. That study seemed to credit states with low housing prices (Kentucky was No. 1, and Nebraska was No. 2); at the risk of being snarky, we would argue that it’s because comparatively few people want to live there.

Regardless of the reasoning, the dichotomy points out the absurdity of seemingly endless rankings of states against one another. Years ago, for example, Business Insider ranked states from the most “weird” to the most “normal,” whatever that means. And last year, WalletHub ranked Washington as the eighth-most “fun” state (Mississippi was No. 50), a category that seems particularly subjective.

But whether Washington is weird or normal or fun, making it desirable for working parents is essential to the quality of life for all residents. Policies that influence child care, schools, maternity leave and cost of living help attract quality employees, keep families in place, and keep young adults from relocating in the pursuit of happiness. That impacts the economy and affects all Washingtonians, whether or not they are raising a family.

As Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said this month upon the occasion of his second inauguration: “For too many decades, Mississippi’s most valuable export has not been our cotton or even our culture. It’s been our kids. They made other places better, and we missed out on all they could have done here at home.”

By investing in children and young adults, Washington has largely avoided that problem, exhibiting foresight that is lacking in many other states. But we should not rest on past achievements.

Most pressing is the state of public education. Test scores are falling, and vast inequities — in both funding and achievement — still exist between districts.

Government policy and taxpayer money cannot remedy all the shortcomings, but lawmakers must view such actions as an investment in the future of the state. Excellent public education is crucial for maintaining Washington an attractive place for working parents.

So is available and affordable day care. According to a report last summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, child care costs have increased 220 percent since 1990, outpacing inflation. As news outlet Axios summarized: “The average annual cost of sending a toddler to day care in Washington tops $14,000 … about $2,100 more than sending your child to the University of Washington for a year.” Only five states and Washington, D.C., had higher day care costs.

Washington is not the only state suffering from a day care shortage that drives up costs. At the end of September last year, a federal Child Care Stabilization Grant expired, exacerbating the economic struggles of day care facilities throughout the country.

Schools and day care deserve attention this year from legislators who wish to keep Washington desirable for working parents. While our state scores well by some measures, there is plenty of room for improvement.