Skip to main content

It’s Time to Build a Comprehensive Child Care and Early Learning System

As the pandemic has underscored, the practice of calling on families to pay unaffordable sums for child care while paying early educators poverty-level wages was never really sustainable, and it’s time for that to change.

,

Over the past year, the media has given unprecedented attention to the inadequacies of child care in the United States. The pandemic forced many child care programs to close, and mothers released a “primal scream” from the stress of managing work and care, or being forced out of the workforce, or needing to reduce their work hours to care for their children, or all of the above, and more. Many child care providers were forced to shut their doors, while others had to take on debt to stay open (or re-open) so that essential workers could continue to rely on their services. People who work in the child care sector either lost their jobs or continued to work throughout the pandemic at great risk to their health and, too often, for poverty-level wages.

Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women especially—all of whom face intersecting oppressions—experienced the multiple effects of being more likely to have lost their jobs or to be on the front lines as essential workers, all while solving their child care challenges on their own. They are also a disproportionate percentage of early educators and child care staff. Indeed, the pandemic both revealed and exacerbated the deep inequities that come from America’s utter lack of a care infrastructure: as a nation, we respond to our child care challenges by foisting them onto the backs of unpaid or underpaid women, especially women of color, as well as older siblings. As the pandemic has underscored, the practice of calling on families to pay unaffordable sums for child care while paying early educators poverty-level wages was never really sustainable, and it’s time for that to change.

Today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) reintroduced the Child Care for Working Families Act (CCWFA), a bill first introduced in 2017. Here’s what I wrote about it when it was first introduced:

The bill would make child care a national priority, lowering child care costs for hard-working families, improving the quality and availability of care, and raising teacher pay. . . . This bill preserves the diversity of child care options that families need while valuing the people who provide care for our children.

This bill continues to reflect this shift in paradigm—serving children and families, while improving child care and early education jobs—and has been updated to meet the moment, one that requires that we finally build the child care and early learning system we have needed all along.

A Long Time Coming

The United States has not had a comprehensive child care and early education system since a brief period during World War II. Since then, American families have been largely left on their own to fend for themselves. In the 1970s, championed by Walter Mondale (who passed away earlier this week), Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act (CCDA) on a bipartisan basis to build the child care and early learning system needed. President Nixon’s veto of the act set the nation back decades, and the repercussions of that setback can be felt to this day, as families and providers have been left reeling in the wake of the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan Act—coupled with the CARES Act and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act—included much of the immediate funding needed to save the child care sector, but saving the impoverished supports we’ve had until now was never going to be sufficient. Even in the best of times, the sector continues to struggle to meet the needs of families and the workforce. The relief funding provided in these acts allows policy makers to start from where we were before the pandemic, instead of from an eroded system—but where we were was far from good enough.

The CCWFA will establish the foundation for a comprehensive child care and early learning system. In doing so, it will support economic growth, restoring the more than $57 billion in economic activity lost every year due to lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. It will create 2.3 million new jobs, through a combination of jobs with better compensation for early educators and support for the workforce participation of parents. Furthermore, according to a new report from the National Women’s Law Center and Columbia University, a significant investment in child care will increase the number of women with young children working full-time/full-year by about 17 percent, and by about 31 percent for women without any college degree. Black and Latina women, who already face compounding labor market discrimination, lower wages, and more difficulty finding child care, would experience larger percent increases in their incomes. It would also boost the collective lifetime earnings of a cohort of 1.3 million women by $130 billion.

Specifically, the bill guarantees financial support to families to make child care, including after school and summer care, more affordable for children ages 0 through 12, as well as for older children with disabilities. It would make three out of four American children eligible for care. Overall, it makes child care and early education affordable and accessible by providing financial assistance for child care on a sliding scale based on income, ensuring that no family with income up to 150 percent of the state median income—approximately $100,000 on average—pays more than 7 percent of their income for care. Those with the lowest incomes will have no copayment at all. This is essential for addressing the currently out-of-reach price of child care. The cost of child care in many states is currently higher than rent, mortgage, and public college tuition. The savings that CCWFA would deliver for families will make a significant difference to household budgets, and for those who are cobbling together care, often relying on older siblings to care for younger ones, it will bring reliable child care options within reach.

Fairness for Early Educators and Child Care Staff

The bill treats early educators and child care staff with respect and dignity for their valuable and complex work, paying them living wages and ensuring parity with elementary school teachers. Child care is one of the lowest-paid professions in the United States. Wages for providers average less than $13 per hour, and recent data show that over half of child care workers were enrolled in at least one public assistance or support program. CCWFA requires that states include the cost of paying living wages and salary parity in developing child care cost estimations so that the subsidies paid by the government will include the amount necessary to ensure early educators are paid well.

The bill also requires states to have a wage ladder and clear professional development requirements that promote the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development of children and improve the knowledge and skills of the child care workforce. It further ensures that early educators and child care staff have a voice at work by requiring states to facilitate the participation of staff of eligible child care providers in programs that foster the professional development and stakeholder engagement of the child care workforce.

Truly Putting Children First

The CCWFA will provide crucial support for children’s healthy development. The first years of a child’s life are the period of the most rapid brain development and lay the foundation for all future learning. The care children receive during these years profoundly shapes their early experiences during a critical time in their development. This bill will ensure that, regardless of economic status, race, zip code, language, or ability, every child will have access to the resources to build a strong foundation. 

The bill is inclusive while targeting populations who historically have been oppressed or denied resources. It would serve the diverse needs and preferences of families, including culturally and linguistically responsive care options, home-based care, and care during non-standard hours that is available when and where families need it, including weekends, after school, nights, and in areas that are currently child care deserts. States are required to have a plan that prioritizes serving children in underserved areas; infants and toddlers; children with disabilities; children who are dual language learners; and children who receive care during nontraditional hours. The bill would also expand funding for states to create high-quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds during the school day, while providing a higher matching rate for programs for infants and toddlers, who require higher staff-to-child ratios.

To further address the inadequate supply of child care, the bill supports states in providing stability for child care providers to plan their budgets based on the true cost rather than daily attendance or regular enrollment using direct contracts or grants to increase the supply and support the stability of child care providers. The Child Care for Working Families Act also bolsters other supply-building activities through start-up grants and additional technical assistance. This will make a significant difference in addressing the child care deserts problem, wherein over half of Americans live in an area with virtually no child care options, or a neighborhood with an insufficient supply of licensed child care. Coupled with provisions to improve the quality of care and ensure that child care providers have the resources they need to be their best, this bill will make high quality child care and early learning available to millions of families. 

A Win Every Way You Look At It

The CCWFA would provide our nation with comprehensive, and utterly crucial, expansions to its infrastructure—because infrastructure is what care work is. It’s the scaffolding that holds up the rest of the economy by supporting the labor force participation of all caregivers, especially mothers. The CCWFA  is also a rare “win for all” policy: the pathway to progress on gender, racial, and income equality; healthy child development and family well-being; educational outcomes; and economic growth and prosperity.

Julie Kashen is a senior fellow and Director for Women's Economic Justice at The Century Foundation with expertise in working families, economic mobility, labor, and poverty.