Feb. 27, 2023
While child care and early learning have been underfunded in this country for decades, the pandemic took a major problem and turned it into a full-blown crisis. Even prior to the pandemic, parents were paying more than they could afford for child care and early educators were earning poverty-level wages.
The pandemic only worsened many of these trends: According to Child Care Aware of America, about 9,000 child care centers and 7,000 family child care programs closed their doors between December 2019 and March 2021, making it even more difficult for families to find affordable, high-quality care. And while the price for child care for two young children continues to exceed the average cost of rent across the country, the adults teaching young children aren’t seeing much benefit from these high prices. The average hourly pay for child care workers varies from state to state, but the 2017 median wage was $10 to $13 per hour. This low pay has led to a major shortage of these workers as some leave the industry altogether for more sustainable wages.
Many state policymakers, recognizing the urgency of the problem, have proposed major investments to lower the cost of child care, expand access to high-quality programs, and raise the pay of early educators. And the recent announcement of nearly $300 million to 42 states through the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five program means more states will soon be taking important steps to strengthen their early care and learning systems.
In addition to the work happening at the state level, there is an urgent need for federal legislation that boosts the amount of federal spending on our youngest children. Earlier this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren and three dozen of her Democratic colleagues in both the House and Senate introduced the Child Care for Every Community Act, a bill that would do just that. The Act is very similar to the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act that Warren introduced last Congress and campaigned on as part of her 2020 presidential run.
The Child Care for Every Community Act would do several things to improve the child care situation in the country. Broadly, it would create a mandatory federal investment to partner with local providers to establish a new network of child care and early learning options for children from birth to school age that includes centers and family child care (FCC) homes. It would address the current high cost of care by using a sliding scale to ensure that fees are affordable based on family income. Specifically, families with higher incomes would spend no more than seven percent of their income on child care, reflecting current guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services around child care affordability. Families earning less than 75 percent of their state median income would be fully subsidized, meaning they would pay no out-of-pocket costs. According to Warren, passage of the Act would result in about half of all families paying less than $10 per day for care.
Affordability is an important component of access to child care, but so is ensuring that the care offered is high quality and provided by well-trained, fairly compensated educators. The Act would tackle these issues in a few different ways. Providers would receive training and assistance to meet the same quality standards that are currently in place for the Head Start program and child care provided by the U.S. military. And many early educators would receive a serious pay bump: The Act requires these educators to receive comparable salaries and benefits to those of public school teachers with similar credentials while providing professional development similar to what’s provided in the military child care program.
The bill authorizes appropriations of $500 million per year over ten years, but the estimated total cost of the bill is not clear.* A 2019 analysis of Warren’s original Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act found that the bill would cost $70 billion per year.
The reality is that the Child Care for Every Community Act faces long odds in the current Congress. The House of Representatives is narrowly controlled by Republicans who have expressed much more interest in cutting domestic spending as part of debt ceiling negotiations than in expanding federal funding. And of the over three dozen lawmakers who are listed as co-sponsors of the bill, exactly zero are Republicans despite polls that consistently show that most Republican voters recognize the need for federal investment in child care and pre-K.
If there’s any chance of a bipartisan path forward on child care, lawmakers will have to reconcile very different approaches to the issue. Two of the recently introduced child care bills build on the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. For example, last year, Republican Senators Tim Scott and Richard Burr introduced the CCDBG Reauthorization Act of 2022 that some believe could form the basis for bipartisan negotiations. The Child Care for Working Families Act, a bill that has been introduced by Democrats since 2017, also builds on the existing CCDBG program and dramatically expands it to help low- and middle-income families afford child care.
These two bills differ from Warren’s Child Care for Every Community Act in a few important ways. Most significantly, they seek to expand access to child care via the CCDBG program while Warren’s bill creates a new system of nationally subsidized child care centers and does not use a block grant structure. Additionally, the two bills’ reliance on CCDBG, a program that covers children from birth to age 13 and requires parents to meet income and education/training requirements to qualify, means that child care is not provided universally or as a public good. By contrast, the Child Care for Every Communities Act applies only to children that are younger than compulsory school age and specifies that all children in this age range are eligible to participate “regardless of family income, disability status, citizenship status, employment of a family member, or circumstance.” This has the benefit of potentially reaching a greater number of children, though such an expansion comes with a higher potential price tag. All three of these bills share a common goal of expanding access to affordable, high-quality child care, but differ significantly in their approach to achieving that outcome.
Coming just days after President Biden emphasized the importance of both child care and pre-K in his State of the Union address, the introduction of the Child Care for Every Community Act illustrates that both the President and congressional Democrats are serious about addressing the child care crisis that is currently holding back so many people across the country. Now the pressure is on congressional Republicans to negotiate or to put forward a plan of their own.
** Updated 3/15/23 to clarify that the bill authorizes $500 million per year in appropriations, but the total estimated cost of the bill is not yet known
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