A narrowly divided Congress was sworn in on January 3, 2021, followed by the Inauguration of President Biden on January 20. With narrow margins in the House of Representative and Senate, our nation’s elected leaders must work together to secure bipartisan solutions to meet our nation’s economic and social needs. Improving child care opportunities for working parents with young children is one area that presents an opportunity and should be a priority for bipartisan agreement and legislation.
The prosperity of our American economy is directly impacted by the well-being of the American family. Child care is essential for millions of working parents with young children aged five and under. Child care allows working parents to find and maintain stable employment, and ensures their children are set up for success upon entering school and later in life. As such, families need access to affordable child care that fits their circumstances and needs. It is imperative that we support all families, especially those with infants and toddlers who face greater challenges when it comes to accessing and affording child care.
The country faced a child care crisis even before COVID-19 and it has only been exacerbated over the last year. In our 2020 analysis of pre-pandemic supply and potential need for child care across 25 states, we identified a potential gap of almost 32% or over 2.5 million families lacking access to child care. While we know supply doesn’t meet demand, the cost to produce the service still exceeds what most parents can afford to pay, excluding too many from participating in the workforce to provide for their families and leaving children without a safe and developmentally appropriate learning environment. There are not enough financial or policy levers in place to make up for these differences, leaving child care businesses struggling and preventing child care workers from earning stable wages.
Together, these issues, present prior to the pandemic, cause significant strain on economic growth and individual opportunity, and COVID-19 has brought these pervasive challenges within the child care market to a head. In our December 2020 parent survey, 11% of parents reported the child care provider they used for their youngest child last January has permanently closed, while just 10% of parents report their provider is open and operating with no restrictions or changes, such as limited hours, spaces, or reserving spots for essential workers. Unfortunately, the link between access to child care and a parent’s workforce participation has never been so evident than during the COVID-19 crisis, as women have left the workforce at unprecedented rates, down to levels not seen since 1988, too often due to a lack of child care.
But there are ways forward that can stabilize the supply of child care programs, improve access and affordability, enable child care businesses and workers to prosper, and ensure every child has a bright future. By reaching across the aisle to develop a better child care system that works for all families, Congress can ensure that today’s workforce is strong, tomorrow’s workforce can grow, and our economy can not only recovery from the current pandemic but can prosper in the years to come. Below are key opportunities for bipartisan agreement on child care during the 117th Congress.
Increase Access to Child Care. Child care is an exceptional expense for working families, with slots frequently unaffordable or in high demand. Some low-income families can access federal subsidies through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), but the program serves fewer than 20% of all eligible children, leaving millions without assistance. Congress must focus on maintaining continued discretionary investments in CCDF (through the Child Care and Development Block Grant) so we can make progress toward filling the gap. Additionally, there needs to be a concerted effort to increase mandatory funding for the CCDF (through the Child Care Entitlement). Mandatory funds have not increased from $2.9 billion annually since 2010. Providing a sustainable, stable source of funding to states will allow them to focus on making more long-term investments in quality and improving access to child care, such as reducing their waiting lists or increasing eligibility to a higher state median income, ultimately serving more children and families in high-quality settings.
Finally, it is time to improve the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC). Originally established to support families with work-related child care expenses, today, it largely fails to provide more than limited support to many low- and middle-income families. Expanding and making the tax credit refundable, and allowing families to receive at least a portion of the credit in periodic payments, will be an important step forward to ensure working parents can access and afford child care.
Improve Facilities and Infrastructure. For too long, the physical facilities and infrastructure of child care programs have consistently been overlooked at the federal level. An HHS OIG report found that 96% of child care programs receiving CCDBG across 10 states had one or more potentially hazardous conditions. Further, there continues to be a significant gap between the availability and the need for child care. Investing in both the quality and availability of child care facilities would be a complementary method of improving the supply and closing this gap. While a few legislative proposals have been introduced, it’s vitally important that a bipartisan conversation results in new investments in the infrastructure of child care for the long-term health of our children and families, as well as our country.
Establish Pathways to Bolster the Early Childhood Workforce. The early childhood workforce continues to be largely undervalued and underappreciated. Despite the vital work they do supporting children in their earliest and most malleable stages of development, the median wage for a child care worker is around $11.65/hour. Wages are even lower for those working with infants and toddlers, or for those with lower educational attainment. With such low wages, it can be difficult for educators to seek additional educational opportunities. Consequently, apprenticeships are a compelling option that have been successful in other industries. Apprenticeships would support the early childhood workforce by combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training and mentorship. With bipartisan legislation introduced in both the House and Senate in the 116th Congress, a continued effort should be made to establish apprenticeships that support the early childhood profession.
In addition to apprenticeships, other industries have benefited from loan assistance opportunities. Currently, there is no federal program specifically intended to provide loan assistance to early childhood educators, despite many educators working in high-need areas and with low-income families. At the same time, early childhood educators are ineligible for many programs that do exist for other, similar industries, such as K12 teachers. Consequently, pursuing legislative opportunities to create a loan assistance program or grants to support higher education opportunities (A.A., B.A, or M.S.) will be an important pathway to bolstering and maintaining a highly qualified workforce.
Support Child Care Businesses. Child care providers are a critical small business sector. In 2016, the child care industry was composed of about 675,000 providers, most of which were small, family child care and home-based providers, employing about 1.5 million workers. Total revenue produced by the industry reached $47.2 billion, and provided sources of income for individuals and sources of economic growth across communities. Despite the high costs that parents pay, and the reality that providing child care is low-wage work, child care businesses rarely make much of a profit and lack traditional levers to increase budgets. Supporting child care as a business is a critical step toward improving the child care market overall.
Family child care programs are a vital component of parent choice, but the number of family child care programs in business has declined over the last several decades, even as more parents favor them over other types of care. Greater investments are needed to help establish family child care networks and other business supports to stabilize this vital component of the child care market, and to improve business stability and program quality.
One insight the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light is how little capital child care providers have, and their inability to access grants or loans to start or improve their business. For instance, nonprofit child care providers are currently not eligible to access Small Business Administration microloans. Bipartisan legislation exists in both the Senate and House to level the playing field, but Congress could expand the conversation and offer more assistance to support the supply of child care businesses around the country.
Assess Lessons from Existing Programs. Congress has created a duo of programs that are succeeding in teaching us the lessons we need to learn to develop a forward-thinking and sustainable child care system that can stand the test of time: Early Head Start–Child Care Partnerships (EHS-CCP) and Preschool Development Grants. As Congress begins to assess how to fully integrate federal early care and education programs, these should be a model as to which areas can be combined to make the best possible system for parents, children, and providers.
EHS-CCP were established in fiscal year 2014 to facilitate formal partnerships between child care and Early Head Start programs. These partnerships are illuminating some of the most important struggles providers have in combining and blending the funding and the requirements from each program. The EHS-CCP program demonstrates that when the federal government gives adequate resources, flexibility, and clear accountability standards, local communities will step up to the challenge. Congress has consistently funded the partnerships on bipartisan appropriations agreements but should consider building upon the successes to establish a long-term, stable funding mechanism for the program.
At the same time, Preschool Development Grants-Birth Through Five, established in the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, have helped to identify the child care system’s governance issues that can be solved at the state and local level. Through the program, states can identify their own gaps in service and enact local reforms to fit the needs of their communities. Congress has continued to increase funding on a bipartisan basis and should do so in the 117th Congress to enable more states to benefit from this program.
Provide Equitable and Inclusive Opportunities. Despite best intentions to make our country’s education system a “great equalizer,” inequities continue to be pervasive within our system, largely failing our youngest and most marginalized learners. Development gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children have been observed as early as nine months old, and before age two, toddlers from low-income backgrounds can already be months behind in language development. The future of our country hinges on the success of the next generation, and Congress should focus its attention on how to create level footing for the most vulnerable children, including those with special needs, children who are dual language learners, and historically marginalized children such as those in tribal communities.
With myriad federal programs that are long overdue for authorization or funding increases, there is no shortage of opportunities for Congress to create more inclusive environments. Congress should make efforts to improve the lackluster data collection within CCDF for children with special needs, a demographic suspected to be significantly underrepresented within CCDF subsidies, but overrepresented in their rates of corporal punishment. Additionally, few alterations have been made to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act despite the essential importance of the program and its perennial underfunding. In addition to fully funding it, young children with special needs would be better served with a birth-to-age-five alignment of IDEA Part C and Part B, whereby families with young children can maintain eligibility until school entry.
In addition to the challenges facing children with special needs, one-third of all children are dual language learners (DLL) and add a rich social and cultural perspective to our country. Unfortunately, children who are dual or indigenous language learners are frequently segregated from their peers. Further, our educational systems are often exclusively English-speaking and fail to adapt their assessment or teaching styles to account for the added value DLLs bring to the classroom. As such, DLLs fall behind and are not set-up for maximum success. Federal funding should be better aligned to encourage states to develop and test teaching models that support inclusion such as investing in strength-based bilingual education and linguistically diverse workforce preparation programs.
Too often, the needs of tribal communities and culturally appropriate early childhood opportunities for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children are frequently an afterthought to Congress and policymakers. Consequently, AI/AN children face intense disparities and challenges including higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, and food insecurity combined with child abuse and a system that fails to provide the necessary supports to access health care, employment, and housing. At a bare minimum, Congress should focus on increased funding and support of tribal early childhood programs to better help AI/AN children and families heal and thrive, overcoming historical trauma and adversity. One program to start with is the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which only has enough funding to offer grants to one out of every four tribal applicants. A $50 million increase in funding would help more tribes implement high-quality, culturally relevant, evidence-based home visiting programs to meet the needs of at-risk families and communities.
By working together on each of these critical components of the child care market, Congress can promote a better, more sustainable child care system for all families and child care providers, and ensure that our economy can not only recover from COVID-19 but thrive in the years to come. Each of these priorities represent key opportunities for bipartisan congressional action in the 117th Congress.