Investing in high-quality, accessible child care is a critical step to bolstering America’s middle class. Affordable child care reduces the burden on working families and allows them to keep more of their paycheck, while also putting young children on an early path to healthy academic and social development.
Before children even set foot in a kindergarten classroom, they have already learned skills that will guide their future success. As toddlers, they learned an entire language and how to communicate their needs, questions, and ideas. Through their earliest interactions, they learned how to trust adults and navigate the world in the context of these relationships. And they’ve learned important things about their environment by climbing, toddling, and tasting everything they encounter. Beneath the surface, children’s brains are growing at a rapid pace, forming over one million connections per second that shape their young minds.
For most children, early learning occurs not just at home, but also in child care and early education settings. In the U.S., two-thirds of children under age six live in homes where all parents work. That means that child care is a necessity for most families, and it has a huge impact on young children’s development. Child care should not only meet working parents’ needs, but it should also provide a nurturing and enriching environment that supports healthy development.
Yet, quality child care is expensive and there is very little help for families living paycheck-to-paycheck. The annual price of a licensed child care center or family child care home exceeds $10,000 in most states — well above what most families can afford to pay. And analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that over a 12 year period, wages mostly remained flat while the price of child care increased by 37 percent. When parents cannot afford to pay, child care programs cannot afford to open their doors.
It should come as no surprise, then, that 53 percent of lower-income and middle-class neighborhoods are child care deserts, with a short supply of licensed child care. Parents who live in child care deserts may find themselves scrambling — piecing together family and friends to cover child care or driving long distances to find an affordable option.
Not having access to affordable, quality child care is a constant burden for middle-class families, as well as those struggling to reach the middle class.
For parents, it can mean forgoing job opportunities, scaling back hours at work, or leaving the workforce altogether. Approximately two million parentsin the U.S. experience career interruptions due to problems with child care, costing families over $8 billion in wages each year.
When parents cannot afford to pay, child care programs cannot afford to open their doors.
For children, it can mean that they start school without the foundational skills that set them up for success. Children from low-income and middle-class families have lower preschool attendance rates than higher income families, and the impact is noticeable when they start school — children’s social and cognitive skills lag behind children from the highest income households.
Investing in child care and early education has impacts beyond individual parents and children; the economy is stronger when parents have quality, affordable options for their children. In Washington, D.C. — where preschool is universally available for three- and four-year-olds — maternal labor force participation increased by 10 percentage points due to preschool expansion.
When families cannot access early childhood programs, businesses pay in dividends. The U.S. loses an estimated $57 billion per year in revenue, productivity, and wages due to child care issues. Americans of all ages — whether they are raising a child today or raised one 20 years ago — should support families access to affordable, high-quality child care as an essential policy for boosting economic growth.
So what do we do about it? The U.S. needs a public investment in child care that subsidizes costs for parents, pays fair wages to child care workers (who currently make just $10 per hour, on average), and provides more options for high-quality care. Last year, Congress passed the largest ever increase in federal funding to help families afford child care and just last month, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act. If enacted, this legislation would provide quality, affordable child care for all families. It’s a visionary bill that will require policymakers to prioritize children and families, but America is up for the challenge.
Katie Hamm is the Vice President for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress