It’s Time to Build a Child Care System That Works For Everyone

COVID-19 was an earthquake that shattered child care’s already unstable foundation. As we work to rebuild and strengthen the care sector, we can’t go back to a status quo that left parents, providers and children behind.

It’s Time to Build a Child Care System That Works For Everyone
When you add up wages, work productivity, economic activity, and lost tax revenue due to insufficient access to child care, it comes out to around $57 billion each year. (Shutterstock)

It’s a new day for child care in America. 

Over the past year, there’s been an increased focus on the importance of high-quality, affordable child care, particularly around the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the sector. But the truth is that for far too many families, children, and early educators, child care was in crisis long before the pandemic. And if we’re going to build a stronger child care system for the future, we have to clearly understand these long-standing challenges. 

The child care status quo was simply unaffordable.

As the State of Babies Yearbook shows, the status quo for child care has been unaffordable for years. It was unaffordable for families, who frequently found the cost of care to be an insurmountable barrier to access. Over half of Americans live in “child care deserts,” where there are more than three times as many children under 5 as there are licensed child care slots. One family told us that they contacted more than 30 providers who didn’t accept infants or had waiting lists of up to two years. Another family, making just over the limit to receive federal aid, shared that the cheapest care they were able to find cost 1.5 times their monthly rent.  

The status quo was unaffordable for early education professionals, a workforce disproportionately made up of women of color. One early educator told us that even with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience, she made less than $30,000 a year, eventually leaving a job she loved when the cost of her own children’s care equaled her monthly take-home pay. On average, child care providers make less than $12 per hour, and providers of color and those serving infants and toddlers make even less. 

The status quo was unaffordable for children, whose rapid development is being shaped in the earliest years of their lives. Given that 62 percent of mothers with children under three were in the workforce prior to the pandemic, the quality of child care programs plays a critical role in supporting this foundational brain development. But too many children, particularly children of color and those in families with low income, are left without consistent access to quality care. 

And the status quo was unaffordable for our economy. When you add up wages, work productivity, economic activity, and lost tax revenue due to insufficient access to child care, it comes out to around $57 billion each year. When we talk about what long-term investments and job creation will look like after the pandemic, we have to consider child care is in that conversation. 

Our elected officials are finally up to the task.

Thankfully, our elected officials are up to the task. Take the Child Care for Working Families Act introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). This landmark bill not only addresses the high costs and limited supply of quality care, but also invests critical resources in supporting early educators and recognizing them as the professionals they are. 

Or look at how President Biden has placed this issue front and center. His American Families Plan makes clear that the White House is answering the call to build a comprehensive child care system, investing $225 billion to provide affordable and high-quality care nationwide. Families will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care, with those most in need having costs completely covered for high-quality care. Providers will receive needed funding to provide the best care possible. And early educators will at last receive a $15 minimum wage. 

It’s Time to Build a Child Care System That Works For Everyone
It’s time to rebuild a stronger foundation for the child care system, acknowledge its role as an essential public good to maintain our economy, and enshrine principles of equity for both parents and providers. (Creative Commons / Flickr)

In fact, the White House has embedded the importance of care throughout their entire domestic agenda. The American Jobs Act calls out the need to upgrade facilities and combat child care deserts by building new centers in high-need areas. And through an expanded tax credit, the White House has committed to spur businesses to build care facilities at their places of work, providing opportunities for parents to utilize a nearby high-quality learning environment while maintaining their jobs. 


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It’s clear that these policies are popular with the American public, regardless of party affiliation. One recent poll showed that not only is the American Families Plan supported by about three in five voters, but that the child care provisions are the most popular part of the proposal. Sixty-four percent of voters supported that aspect of the plan, with just 22 percent opposed. Further polling shows that three in four voters say that elected officials should make child care a priority in 2021, including 71 percent of independents and 63 percent of Republicans. 

It’s time to go big and bold for our babies.

COVID-19 was an earthquake that shattered child care’s already unstable foundation. As we work to rebuild and strengthen the care sector, we can’t go back to a status quo that left parents, providers and children behind. We’ve let our fragile child care system be subsidized on the backs of unaffordable costs for parents and unlivable wages for providers. No more. 

We need immediate, comprehensive action by our elected officials to shape a stronger, more resilient future for child care. We must ensure that all children can receive high-quality care that supports their healthy development. We must ensure that families have affordable access to their choice of settings that best meets their needs and the needs of their children. And we must ensure that early childhood professionals receive the support, resources and fair compensation that they have long needed. 

It’s time to rebuild a stronger foundation for the child care system, acknowledge its role as an essential public good to maintain our economy, and enshrine principles of equity for both parents and providers. There’s no other age group where we ask parents to shoulder the full cost of education and care, and it’s heartening to see our policymakers recognize the importance of investing in child care as the public good it is. 

When we invest in our children, we’re investing in our present and our future, and we can’t wait another moment. It’s time to go big, go bold, and build a stronger, more equitable child care system for current and future generations.

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About

Dr. Myra Jones-Taylor is the chief policy officer at ZERO TO THREE.