If Not Now, When? It’s Time to Transform Child Care

President Joe Biden has signed the American Rescue Plan into law, granting $40 billion in child care funding and providing much-needed relief to providers, parents and children alike.

This child care relief is notable for three reasons: First, it is the largest investment this country has ever made in child care, and is roughly 20 times larger than the child care relief provided in President Barack Obama’s stimulus measure. Second, despite the investment’s size, it has been uncontroversial and has not attracted the types of criticism directed at other relief policies. Third, because it is a one-time investment, it will not be sufficient to advance longer-term transformation in the system of child care.

Congress and the administration will need to build on this investment so that communities can make permanent changes to ensure all families have access to affordable, high-quality child care.

Just as the 1944 GI Bill expanded economic opportunity following a period of crisis by allowing millions of veterans to attend college and helping to create the American middle class, COVID-19 and the accompanying economic recession have created an equally powerful inflection point for child care.

The United States does not have a system of early care and education that meets the needs of children, families or providers — the patchwork of programs that does exist does not amount to a system at all. Among the 50 states, there is no clear example that provides high-quality early childhood opportunities from birth to age five, despite our knowledge of how important early years are to children’s growth and development.

In 2020, the pandemic exposed just how crucial child care is to America’s economy and has shown the consequences of persistent underinvestment in children and families. Without child care, tens of millions of parents could not return to work. Child care providers across the country shuttered — with as many as 1 in 4 remaining closed — and women, people of color and children were disproportionately affected. The largest impact has been on women, millions of whom have been forced to put their careers on hold to assume the role of caretaker amid school closures — something Biden says constitutes a national emergency. Without the government’s help in transforming child care, women could fall permanently behind.

While much of the country’s focus has been on the economic downturn and its effect on parents, less attention has been paid to how children have likely been impacted by a lack of child care. The first five years are formative ones for brain development and socialization, but they also establish a child’s capacity for learning new skills and future success. While learning loss has been central to the conversation around reopening schools, there has been no similar focus on the pandemic’s impact on child development or school readiness. Building a strong system of child care will be essential in addressing those challenges.

People of color also represent a significant portion of the child care workforce and have been disproportionately affected, forced to choose between closing their doors or taking on substantial debt because of the lack of public infrastructure to support them. While women of color represent only 20 percent of the American population, they make up 40 percent of the roughly 1.5 million child care workers.

Making matters worse, early childhood educators earn poverty-level wages in 40 states, with a median wage of $11.65 per hour, more than $20 per hour less than kindergarten teachers, according to the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index, with Black early educators earning $0.78 less per hour than their white peers. We must prioritize all child care workers as we do K-12 teachers — and provide them with equal pay.

There is room for optimism. Our country has a track record of bipartisan agreement toward making improvements in child care. Congress worked in 2014 to pass long-needed reforms to the federal child care program and, just four years later, worked together to effectively double the amount of its annual funding.

So, this is just the beginning.

Quality child care is a necessity — and one that requires long-term investment as part of America’s infrastructure. Many people think of infrastructure as bridges and highways, but in this case, we must consider child care as part of the social infrastructure that supports communities. For children, parents and providers, access to quality, affordable care is arguably just as important as the roads we drive on.

Over time, a varied group of stakeholders have called for the development of a high-quality system of early care and education, including Nobel laureates, members of the Federal Reserve, celebrities and even U.S. presidents. Many are quick to point out that the pandemic and its impact on the economy have highlighted the importance of child care, and that is indisputable. But it is the voices of parents and providers that have finally gotten through to policymakers. We should listen to them and seize this moment to fasten another rung on the ladder of opportunity.


Mario Cardona is the chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America and a former Obama Administration senior policy adviser for elementary and secondary education on the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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