Access to quality child care and preschool is a game-changer that can impact the rest of a child’s life. High-quality early education drastically improves children’s early language, literacy, and math skills, and impacts long-term outcomes, including high school graduation, lifetime earnings, and the likelihood of crime, violence, and teen pregnancy. But for millions of working families in America today, high-quality child care and pre-k remain out of reach.
Child care costs more than median rent in every state, and it’s more expensive than the average annual tuition and fees for a public four-year university in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Access to pre-K is scarcely better—just over one-third of preschool-aged children are enrolled in public pre-k in the United States. The United States can and should do better.
As the nation looks toward its next slate of leaders in 2016, the Center for American Progress has launched the WithinReach campaign to elevate and create momentum around the need to put high-quality child care and pre-K within reach for kids, for families, and for the economy as part of the national debate.
The simple truth is that our work-family policies are out-of-step with the realities of American families. Sixty-five percent of children under age 6 have both parents in the workforce, which means parents, especially working moms, are often left to make an impossible choice: work long hours, away from their families, just to afford care; or forgo needed pay to stay at home and care for their children. From 2000 to 2012, child care costs for a typical middle class family grew by 30%, and today, the average price of a child care center exceeds $10,000 a year. For a typical family with an infant and a 4-year-old, child care costs $17,755 per year. To add insult to injury, only 10% of child care programs in the U.S. are considered high-quality.
But child care and pre-K aren’t just about kids: it’s about the reality faced by the majority of American families, workers, and our economy. For every $1 dollar invested in early childhood education, the public reaps $7 in benefits. Access to high-quality early education ensures parents stay in the workforce and improves child outcomes, which means fewer public resources needed for child welfare services and the criminal justice system down the road. Employers are able to keep talented, productive workers who are contributing to the economy. In sum, early childhood education builds a workforce that will drive future economic growth, secures long term economic competitiveness, and develops our nation’s future leaders.
Wages for child care workers—the majority of whom are women making a poverty wage and unable to afford care for their own children—also need to be a part of the equation. Chronic low wages are among the biggest obstacle to high-quality child care. Low pay is linked with low teacher morale and high turnover, as workers need a reliable and livable income to maintain stability and retain their jobs.
The WithinReach campaign calls for a major national public solution that addresses the magnitude of this problem for our nation, which begins by acknowledging just how out of reach high-quality child care and pre-K truly are. The Center for American Progress recently proposed a High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit that would help low- and middle-income families afford child care by providing a new tax credit to families that make up to four times the federal poverty level. The credit would be worth up to $14,000 per year for families with a child under 3, is contingent on quality standards from providers that can be phased in over time, and calls for higher wages for child care workers. The tax credit also complements CAP’s proposal for accessible universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds, which would allow every child the option of attending two years of high-quality public pre-K.
A strong economy starts with strong families, but low quality and skyrocketing costs are putting child care and pre-K out of reach for millions of hard-working Americans, leaving families struggling to choose between their paycheck and their child’s care. Low- to seemingly comfortable middle-income families are being squeezed and need access to child care and pre-K to make ends meet. All presidential candidates campaigning on how they’ll stand up for families, fight for our economy, or strengthen the middle class, should be held accountable for how they’ll address the huge predicament facing millions of American families—how they’re going to put high-quality child care and pre-k within reach.
Carmel Martin is the Executive Vice President of Policy at the Center for American Progress.