Addressing Childcare Costs Must Be a Federal Priority

The huge gap between what parents pay for childcare and what early educators earn is a product of a broken market. It cannot be solved on its own.

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

Editor’s note: The piece below is adapted from testimony by The Century Foundation’s director for economic justice and senior fellow Julie Kashen before the Senate HELP Committee at a hearing focused on child care and pre-K on March 22. In it, Murdered explains the necessity of investing in a comprehensive child care and pre-K system for families, and also for the American economy.

What could be more fundamental to American communities than how we care for our children? Picture the newborn hanging out with her parents, a pre-K teacher reading The very hungry caterpillar to her students or the joy when a toddler makes his first friend in a childcare classroom. We’re here today to talk about not only why we should prioritize taking care of children as a shared American value, but also as a necessity for equitable economic growth.

Lowering costs for families

American families have long struggled with out-of-reach child care prices. Child care costs the equivalent of college tuition, rent or mortgage payments. These costs often come early in parents’ working lives, when they can least afford them.

It is as they can find childcare. Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the child care sector, more than half of families with young children lived in a child care desert, and two-thirds lived in infant and toddler care deserts, neighborhoods without enough child care spaces.

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

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

Essential Elements of Federal Child Care and Pre-K Investments

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an unacceptable status quo. That’s why parents, teachers, business leaders, providers, grandparents, economists and more came together in support of the child care and preschool investments proposed by Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and her colleagues.

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

  1. Guarantee assistance to every eligible family, including middle-class families.
  2. Lower childcare costs for families. The Democratic proposal would lower costs by about $5,000 a year per family.
  3. Give each family the freedom to choose the care and early education that works best for them. This requires building the supply of high quality child care and pre-K options in diverse settings including centers, family child care, faith-based programs, Head Start and Early Head Start programs and in schools.
  4. Invest in the workforce by providing higher compensation and training opportunities.
  5. Ensure that all children have child care that promotes their health, well-being and learning during the earliest years of basic brain development.

Some would say that we already have a childcare policy in place. I want to address that. The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) serves low-income working families, but due to chronic underfunding, only one in nine eligible young children actually receives help. Due to the lack of resources and limited reach, 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 such as Kansas, South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado.

The status quo is untenable. Without intervention, safe, nurturing, reliable childcare and preschool will be out of reach for all but the wealthiest families. Racial, economic and gender inequalities will widen. The vast majority of families will continue to cobble together temporary 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 work hours, causing long-term negative impacts on lifetime earnings, retirement security and career advancement.

On the other hand, the Democratic proposal would support children, families and economic growth. A new report from The Century Foundation and Center for Economic Policy Research finds that annual parental earnings nationwide will increase by $48 billion. Reduced business disruptions will generate $60 billion annually and expanding the early learning sector will generate $30 billion annually.

Beyond these gains, families will have more economic stability, parents – especially mothers – will have more choices. And children will have stronger social, emotional and academic foundations. That’s what it looks like to care about America’s children.

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

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