Why the Child Care System is Broken (and How to Fix It)

Newly released Care Index reveals fractured, expensive child care system straining American families
Blog Post
Oct. 11, 2016

The child care system in America is costly, low-quality, and, in a word, broken. That’s according to a newly released Care Index from New America’s Better Life Lab and Care.com which offers a comprehensive picture of the state of child care in America. And the picture is bleak.

The state-by-state analysis on the cost, quality, and availability of child care reveals startling realities American families face when it comes to caring for the 12 million children below the age of five:

  • The typical annual cost of full-time care in child care centers for children ages 0-4 is higher ($9,589) than the average annual cost of in-state college tuition ($9,410).
  • A family earning the median household income would need to spend one-fifth (18 percent) of its income to cover the cost of full-time, center-based care. For an individual earning the minimum wage the cost is even more daunting-- 64 percent of his or her total income.
  • The cost of full-time care in child care centers is 85 percent of the monthly U.S. median cost of rent.

(See how your state stacks up by exploring the interactive Care Index

The index comes at a watershed moment for child care in America. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed policies to make child care more affordable and accessible.

With child care coming at such high costs to families, it would be reasonable to expect care to be high-quality and its workforce fairly compensated. Yet, the reality is just the opposite. In fact, the accompanying report found that only 11 percent of child care establishments nationally are accredited - an imprecise but telling measure of program quality. And the childcare workforce, those charged with caring for children in their most critical stage of development, subsists on poverty-level wages, averaging just $9.77 an hour.

(It’s important to note that because there is no single, standard metric for evaluating quality, measuring and comparing the quality of early care and education is a difficult and imprecise science. The Care Report used accreditation as a proxy for quality as it shows that programs have met basic program standards).

So how did we get to this point? The reasons for the fractured, bleak state of child care today are complex but have roots in the fact that our nation’s laws and policies are built upon a notion of a family structure that no longer exists today. As the “typical” American family has moved away from dual-parent, single-earner households and more women have entered the workforce, the demand for child care has increased. But supplying high-quality child care is labor-intensive and expensive and parents are simply unable to cover the total cost to providers. As a result, providers are forced to either look to private or public funding sources to fill the gap between tuition from parents and actual cost of care or cut costs in ways that may undermine program quality. In the absence of more government investment, providers are often forced to choose the latter.

All of these factors -- changing family structure, increased demand for care, and insufficient government investment -- have combined to leave us with the expensive, mixed-quality non-system we have today.

So how do we fix a system that is outdated, fractured, and broken? First, policy leaders at all levels of government must make child care a public policy priority. It’s promising that both Clinton and Trump have incorporated child care into their platforms. And overwhelming public support for investment in early education is reason to be optimistic that a problem long dismissed as a “women’s issue” will continue to rise in prominence as a national priority.

Indeed, more and more policymakers are realizing that, far from just a “women’s issue”,  affordable, accessible, high-quality child care is both a family issue and an economic issue. And it cuts across lines of party and geography. Having a child shouldn’t mean facing the choice between quitting your job (and losing wages) or breaking the bank to find care. But, in the fragmented, costly system that exists today, this is the choice parents often face.

The report’s authors hope the Care Index will add fuel to the ongoing national conversation on child care. Specifically, the report recommends four policies to improve the affordability, quality, and availability of childcare for families:

  • providing universal paid family leave
  • expanding and improving cash assistance programs
  • implementing high-quality universal pre-K programs; and
  • focusing resources on programs aimed at dual-language learners.

The New America report and Care Index provide comprehensive information in an area where there is traditionally a dearth of data and sheds light on a topic that has for too long been ignored by policymakers. The broken child care non-system won’t be fixed overnight or by a single policy prescription. It will take leadership at all levels of government and inventive solutions if we are to begin to solve the childcare crisis.