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The Cost of Doing Nothing: The Need for National Conversation on Early Childhood

Most Americans agree that children need support to thrive, particularly in the crucial first few years of life. However, despite broad consensus on the importance of this time in a child’s life, we continue to debate how to best support parents so they can provide caring and enriching environments for their children. The debate can be healthy but it needs to lead to concrete action. We believe there are several short-term and longer-term steps we can take, in a bipartisan fashion, to improve early childhood care and education in this country.

Today, most families have two parents in the workforce and a critical part of American family life involves some form of child care. Parents’ ability to balance work responsibilities with the needs of their children frequently results in overly stressed parents, which in turn can have negative consequences for everyone –  children, parents and employers alike.  Report after report shows that quality child care, if available, is expensive and beyond the reach of many working families. This is particularly true for families living below 200 percent of the poverty level, although low-income families are not the only ones experiencing stress resulting from child care. Child care sits near the top of the list for a young family’s expenses. The cost of infant care ranges from $10,000 up to nearly $20,000 a year, IF you can find it. Ask any new parent who has tried to find child care for an infant lately. Most are in complete shock; first about how difficult it is to find it and then (if they do find it) about the cost. 

Do we agree that our children and families, no matter their circumstances, deserve the best possible start in life?

At the same time, studies also show that those working in child care are among the lowest paid in our country with the average salary of child care workers qualifying them for SNAP benefits in all 50 states. Studies also show that children from low-income families benefit most from high-quality child care and that quality depends on the skills, knowledge and interactions of those working within the programs. We have a national conundrum ? how can we provide the quality of care our children need, pay those caring for them a livable wage, AND make the services affordable to all parents? 

In the near term, Congress can act our recommendation to double the federal funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) for children ages birth to five.  This recommendation was included in our report A Bipartisan Case for Early Childhood Development, co-chaired by former Congressman George Miller and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. By doing this, we estimate that an additional 364,800 families with children under five could be served.  While it is far from meeting the real need for American families, it is a solid down payment.

In the longer term, there will need to be a broader conversation about our country’s approach to early childhood. Next month, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will issue a report with recommendations about how to finance early care and education. Although we don’t yet know what the report will say, it is safe to assume that the cost to provide our children with the quality instruction they need will be significant. It is our hope that this report will spur a national dialog on how to provide children and families with the quality of early care and learning they deserve. The dialog is long overdue because as we all know, parents cannot afford to pay any more than they already are paying for child care. 

As we move forward, there are important questions that need to be answered: What is the cost of doing nothing? What are some children getting that others are not, simply because their parents cannot afford it? Do we really believe “children are our most valuable resource” and if so, how do we provide the best possible beginning for all of them?

These, and many more questions, will need to be answered over the coming months and years but the most important question of all is this ? do we agree that our children and families, no matter their circumstances, deserve the best possible start in life?  If we do, we can get over the hurdles that will come. We have one thing in common, CHILDREN.  Despite differences in HOW we move forward, I know of no one, no matter their party affiliation, who doesn’t care about, and want the best for children.

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