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The Future of Working Families: How We Care for Our Children

Children’s brains, from birth through the first several years, develop at a rapid pace unlike any other period in human development. In these early years, the human brain is exceptionally malleable and sensitive to experiences, for better or for worse. Positive experiences can have especially favorable effects on long-term outcomes, whereas negative experiences can have especially detrimental consequences. While not fixed or immovable, trajectories are set in a positive or negative direction in the earliest years, based on the quality of children’s experiences. The high-stakes nature of this period makes it critical that children spend their time in a positive environment that is safe and socially, emotionally, and cognitively engaging, in the company of sensitive and responsive adults.

In many cases, those adults are children’s parents and families, but more and more, the responsibility is being shared with early care and learning providers. In fact, in the United States today, both parents work in about two-thirds of two-parent households and nearly 80 percent of parents work in single-parent households. For some, it is a choice. For many others, it is an economic necessity. In either case, the need for high quality early care and learning is irrefutable. And given what we now know about brain science and the power of early experiences, including prenatal health, access to high-quality early care and learning is paramount.

Expanding access to high-quality early care and learning also makes sense financially. Economists have found that early care and learning programs generate a robust national return on investment, especially for low-income children. Studies of three high-quality early care and learning programs found that for every $1 spent, the return to society is between $3 and $11. The returns were evident in the lifetime earnings of children who participated in high-quality early care and learning programs (25 percent higher each year compared with nonparticipants), and evident in less spending on remedial education, social programs, and the criminal justice system. The Council of Economic Advisers suggests that if all children enrolled in high-quality early care and learning programs at the same rate as high-income children, it would raise the level of U.S. GDP by .16 percent, bringing it up to .44 percent per year and adding between $28 and $74 billion to the economy per year.

But beyond the brain science and return on investment, all children deserve positive early childhood experiences and a strong foundation that will prepare them to learn, grow, and succeed. They should have opportunities that help them reach their full potential. All children, in all settings, should be nurtured, safe, and well cared for, with equal opportunities for learning. There should be no distinction on how well children are treated based on income, race, language of origin, or any other demographic characteristic.

Unfortunately, the United States falls disappointingly short of these ideals. Indeed, accessing affordable, high-quality early care and learning is a dream, not a reality, for the majority of American working families. In most cases, care is unaffordable, inaccessible, of subpar quality, or all three. The current system’s financing is broken. Parents cannot afford to pay what it costs to provide the care they need. The federal government provides child care subsidies to low- and middle-income working families through the Child Care and Development Fund, but because the program is severely underfunded, only about 15 percent of eligible families are served. Even families lucky enough to receive a subsidy find that the value of the subsidy is not enough to afford high-quality care. In every state in the nation, the value of the subsidy does not begin to approach the cost of high-quality care, leaving it out of reach for most.

Families of color, low-income families, and families from historically marginalized communities have even less access to high-quality care and learning. Once inside the early care and learning system, well-documented data indicate that children from diverse backgrounds are often treated more poorly than their peers—for example, they are more likely to be the subjects of harsher discipline, including expulsion, suspension, and corporal punishment.

Moreover, early care and learning providers are struggling to get by. In every state in the nation, the median wage for an early care and learning provider makes him or her eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Barely able to provide for their own families, many providers simply do not have the resources to provide high-quality care and learning to the families in their communities.

This state of affairs has placed families—both low- and middle-income families—in an impossible position, often forcing them to choose between high-quality early care and learning for their children and other basic necessities. In many cases, families end up accessing poor-quality care that, at best, fails to prepare children to excel in school and, at worst, puts them in danger. Many other parents make the decision to not work at all. With the high costs of care, the math in the family budget simply does not add up.

A strong, stable, and healthy family unit is important to the success of America’s children and to the nation itself, yet many American families are struggling. Children are not getting the supports they need. And the country is leaving far too much American potential on the table. But the current state of affairs does not have to be permanent. The United States has seen significant progress in other health and social issues in the past. For example, prior to 1997, 15 percent of all children and 25 percent of low-income children did not have health insurance. Today, more than 20 years after the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), more than 95 percent of all children have health insurance. CHIP and Medicaid combined cover more than half of all children with special health care needs and about 47 percent of children who live in rural communities. CHIP is also an important resource for working families: Nearly 85 percent of all children enrolled in CHIP have at least one working parent. Progress like this is possible with early care and learning.

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