Addressing child care costs must be a federal priority

The huge gap between what parents pay for child care and what early educators earn is the product of a broken market. It cannot be solved by itself.

Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the child care industry, more than half of families with young children lived in a child care desert or in neighborhoods without enough child care spaces. (Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: The room below is adapted from a testimonial by Century Foundation Director for Economic Justice and Senior Researcher Julie Kashen before the Senate Aid Committee during a hearing focused on childcare and pre-K March 22. In this document, Kachen explains the need to invest in a comprehensive child care and pre-K system for families, but also for the American economy.

What could be more fundamental to American communities than how we care for our children? Imagine the newborn snuggling with his parents, a pre-kindergarten teacher reading The hungry caterpillar to his students or the joy when a toddler makes his first friend in a daycare class. We are here today to talk not only about why we must prioritize childcare as a shared American value, but also as an imperative for equitable economic growth.

Reduce costs for families

American families have long struggled with out-of-reach child care prices. Child care costs the equivalent of tuition, rent or mortgage Payments. These costs often arise early in a parent’s working life, when they can least afford it.

This is if they can find daycare. Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the child care industry, more than half of families with young children lived in a child care desert, and two-thirds in infant and toddler care desertsneighborhoods without enough child care spaces.

And early educators, who are overwhelmingly women and disproportionately women of color, have long been severely underpaid for their valuable and complex work.

The huge gap between what parents pay and what early educators earn is the product of a broken market. It cannot be solved by itself. The federal government must step in with long-term sustainable investments through reconciliation.

Essential Elements of Federal Investments in Child Care and Pre-K

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an unacceptable status quo. That’s why parents, teachers, business leaders, suppliers, grandparents, economists and many more have come together to support the investments in childcare and preschool proposed by the president Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and her colleagues.

The way forward must include these five principles reflected in this proposal:

  1. Guarantee assistance to all eligible families, including middle-class families.
  2. Reduced childcare costs for families. The Democratic proposal would cut costs by approximately $5,000 per year per family.
  3. Give each family the freedom to choose the care and early education that works best for them. This requires expanding the provision of high-quality childcare and pre-K options in a variety of settings, including centers, family daycares, faith-based programs, Head Start and Early Head Start programs and in the schools.
  4. Invest in the workforce by providing higher pay and training opportunities.
  5. Ensure that all children have access to child care that supports their health, well-being and learning during the early years of fundamental brain development.

Some will say that we already have a child care policy in place. I want to talk about it. The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is aimed at low-income working families, but only because of chronic underfunding one in nine eligible young children actually get help. Due to lack of resources and limited scope, most families are not included at all. The Democratic proposal would reach more than 20 times the number of children served by CCDBG in states including Kansas, South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado.

The status quo is untenable. Without intervention, safe, caring, and reliable child care centers and preschools will be out of reach for all but the wealthiest families. Racial, economic and gender inequalities will expand. The vast majority of families will continue to cobble together band-aid solutions that create stress, instability and challenges for them, their employers and their children. Some will be forced to leave the workforce altogether or reduce their working hours, with long-term negative effects on lifetime earnings, retirement security and career advancement.

On the other hand, the Democratic proposal will support children, families and economic growth. A new report from the Century Foundation and the Center for Economic Policy Research finds annual parental incomes will increase by $48 billion nationwide. Reducing business interruptions will generate $60 billion per year and expanding the early learning sector will generate $30 billion per year.

Beyond these gains, families will have more economic stability, parents – especially mothers – will have more choice. And children will have stronger social, emotional, and academic foundations. This is what it’s like to take care of American children.

While Congress has important choices to make in the coming weeks, parents of young children need choices too. If they can’t have their children looked after, they can’t go to work. Period. Congress now has the opportunity to make child care work for millions of Americans.

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