Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made headlines last month when she said that child care is “a textbook case of a broken market.” That’s not news to parents. Too many families with young children pay too much for child care, can’t find high-quality care, or can’t find any child care at all.
Furthermore, early educators are chronically underpaid, fueling sky-high turnover rates and a critical staff shortage that threatens the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis — and the future of millions of American kids.
Americans across the political spectrum consistently support increased spending on children under 5, yet early childhood may get shortchanged – again – as their representatives on Capitol Hill disagree on how much to invest in young children, parents, and the future.
As experts in 0-5 policy – and as mothers of young children – we worry that this historic opportunity to finally build a high-quality, equitable, national early care and education system is about to be lost.
In their eagerness to reduce costs, there is a danger that policymakers may opt for an approach that appears thrifty but is piecemeal and inadequate, once again offering families too little, too low-quality care for too few.
This band-aid approach has failed our children, families, and teachers for generations.
In 2018, more than half of Americans lived in child care deserts, where there was fewer than one licensed slot per three young children. In 2014, parents with children under age 5 spent an average of 10 percent of household income on child care – but most of the care they paid for was of mediocre or low quality, with those teaching the youngest and most vulnerable among us currently being paid around $12 per hour.
Our child care system doesn’t work for families’ post-pandemic lives. Only 14% of low-income children eligible for federal child care subsidies receive them. And the requirements that we place on families, including work requirements, are rigid & outdated. https://t.co/1l6vuicGSw
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) May 20, 2021
Parents simply can’t afford to shoulder the true cost of labor-intensive, high-quality child care alone, especially during the lowest-earning years of their careers.
Comprehensive 0-5 Policy
We need a comprehensive approach to 0-5 policy, with a national paid family leave program that ensures time at home to bond with newborns, provides time off for the inevitable bouts of illness that all young children have, and protects parents’ jobs while they are on leave.
Once parents return to work, a comprehensive approach means access to high-quality child care, no matter where they live, how much they earn, or when they work.
In the preschool years, all children should have the option of enrolling in a high-quality program that supports their learning needs and meets the demands of their parents’ work schedules, including quality care before and after school and care in the summer.
A comprehensive approach also means that early childhood educators will finally be paid the fair wage they deserve for their critical work.
Build Back Better
Each of these elements is reflected in the Build Back Better legislation.
Build Back Better would be a game changer for young kids, families, teachers, and employers. The bill’s price tag represents economic infrastructure investments in child care that would jointly allow parents to get back to work and educate America’s future workforce. Handwringing about the bill’s cost obscures the fact that these funds are a critical investment in the current economy and the future of our nation.
Fifty years ago, then-President Richard Nixon vetoed a bill that would have created a comprehensive child care system, a missed opportunity we have been paying for ever since, via staggering gaps in children’s skills by family income, family economic insecurity, and lower economic growth – especially now, with learning setbacks and millions of parents out of the labor force due to child care shortages.
Our peer nations have far surpassed us in critical early childhood investments and maternal employment rates. In the wake of COVID-19, we simply cannot afford to blow it again. Our parents, children, and teachers need our lawmakers to fund the high-quality, consistent, and comprehensive early care and education system that all American families deserve.
The elements described in this piece are part of the vision the authors outline in their book, Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality, which was published in 2017 and updated in 2021.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.