Learning from the Past to Avoid Painful Cuts for Child Care

Reflecting on tragic policies from the past can strengthen the future of early care and learning.
Blog Post
A child in a yellow raincoat walks on a fallen log while holding an adult's hand.
Photo by Oleksandr P via Pexels
Sept. 18, 2023

It’s back-to-school time, and families are sharing adorable pictures of kids dressed up for their first day. It’s a given that K-12 students have a school to attend as the year starts up. For younger children, there is no such guarantee. Scores of early learning programs closed throughout the COVID-19 crisis, many of which never reopened, leaving far fewer programs available and families scrambling to patch together child care. The emergency federal relief provided to child care during the pandemic — $39 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — was a lifeline to early care and education (ECE) providers, and it is about to suddenly stop at the end of the month.

Affordable, high-quality ECE was already difficult to find in the U.S., which invests far less in young children than other wealthy countries. With this funding cliff drawing nearer, policymakers need to decide whether they’re going to act on lessons learned, or if we’re doomed to repeat our past.

Democratic congressional lawmakers introduced the Child Care Stabilization Act last week, which would extend crucial child care stabilization grants by providing $16 billion in annual mandatory funding for five years. It is unclear whether this legislation will go anywhere, given disputes in the House that may push the federal government into a shutdown.

We already have a major lesson front and center when considering how to move forward: the U.S. made another large investment in children during the pandemic by expanding the child tax credit (CTC) for 2021, which delivered funds to families with young children that went toward bills, debt, housing, clothes, groceries, and other essentials. Policymakers, researchers, and advocates marveled at its success. In 2021, the child poverty rate in the U.S. was the lowest it's ever been recorded, with 2.9 million children lifted out of poverty. Child poverty was nearly cut in half (-46 percent) compared to 2020, according to the Census. The expanded CTC also better supported families of historically underserved children, such as Black and Latino children, children in single-parent families, and children in rural areas.

Experts warned that if Congress failed to continue the CTC expansion, it would undo this extraordinary progress and send millions of children back into poverty. The cliff loomed. And then, Republicans and a key Senate Democrat blocked its continuation. And off the cliff we went: The child poverty rate more than doubled, from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022. The U.S. made a policy choice to lift millions of children out of poverty, and then it made a choice to push millions of children back into poverty.

Policymakers now have another policy choice to make, this time about ECE, and we can’t betray our nation’s children again. As American families and child care providers stand at the precipice of this policy decision, our elected officials should reflect on what happened when they let the CTC expansion expire. Just as experts foresaw dire consequences if we let the CTC expansion expire, again they are warning of dire consequences if we fall off the ECE funding cliff: 3.2 million children are estimated to lose their child care spots as 70,000 programs close. The cost of child care will likely skyrocket, forcing child care programs to take fewer children, raise tuition, pay their workforce less, or shut their doors permanently. This will especially affect family child care providers, who are disproportionately women of color.

The combination of even higher costs and lower availability of programs will likely cause many parents, especially women, to leave the workforce or reduce their hours, costing families an estimated $9 billion per year in lost income. Finding affordable, high-quality ECE has long been a major stressor for U.S. families, and the COVID-19 crisis put that into sharp relief. The pandemic and its aftermath should shock policymakers into recognizing how desperately families need more early care and learning support, how vital our ECE workforce is, and for meeting this realization with action.

When teetering on the edge of a cliff, it’s only natural to hyperfocus on survival. Those who work in child care and the families they serve are grasping for something to hold onto, hoping it’s robust federal funding, and trying to invent contingencies through state and local strategies. But policy influencers and administrators can’t just focus on the money itself; they need to make sure to spend it in a way that corrects injustices and makes progress for ECE equity.

While we find our footing, we can’t lose sight of addressing the needs of children and families that have always been furthest from educational justice. For instance, even before the pandemic, and still today, there is inadequate access to high-quality ECE for Black, Latino, and Native children, children with disabilities, dual language learners, children living in foster care, unhoused children, children from families with low incomes, and families in rural areas. Black preschool children and children with disabilities have lower access as they are disproportionately disciplined and pushed out of programs.

Student parents, most of whom are women of color, struggle to find affordable child care that will allow them to stay in school. The people who educate and care for young children, many of whom are women of color with young children themselves, are among the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. and often do not receive benefits like health insurance. Policy efforts often overlook the needs of babies, which can drive up infant care costs while infant educators have even lower salaries than their preschool-age counterparts. Like in so many other spheres, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these inequities in ECE.

It’s not just that policymakers have a moral obligation to use funding to repair these inequities; it’s also smart policy. As lawmakers work behind the scenes to figure out how to avoid the funding cliff and bring more stability to ECE, they should keep in mind who exactly they are serving. The majority of children in the U.S. are children of color and preschool children are an increasingly diverse group by race, ethnicity, and home language. By keeping equity front and center while grappling with funding, we can build a stronger foundation for whatever comes next.

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