Policy Recommendations: Introduction

Photo: Long Story Short Media

It's Time for the Great Debate

The current child care system in the United States isn’t working well for anyone, even though the majority of children in the United States are being raised in families where all parents work for pay, and the majority of children have, since the 1990s, been in some form of  “non-maternal” care from the age of six months. The Care Index data shows that no one state is providing all three of the pillars that constitute a functioning early care and learning system that supports both working families of all socioeconomic levels and the child development needs of all children: affordable cost, high quality, and easy availability.

Instead, families must rely on a patchwork system that that is expensive to the point of keeping some parents, typically mothers, out of the workforce; difficult to find; and mediocre at best, with teachers paid poverty wages, turnover high and small providers operating on razor-thin margins.

The Care Index found that the average cost of child care in centers is nearly one-fifth the median household income, and nearly two-thirds of a minimum wage workers’ earnings. Nationally, only 11 percent of centers and family homes are accredited to meet quality standards. As for availability, the New America Care Report profiled one parent in Georgia who wanted to find quality care for her two young children close to her work, but couldn’t afford any licensed establishment within a 20-mile radius.

There is a reason that this hodgepodge child care infrastructure exists in the United States: Policymakers decided in the early 1970s that child care was the private responsibility of families, not a public investment in the economy for the good of society and the future, and that a functioning child care system would have “family-weakening implications.”

In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Care Development Fund, a bipartisan effort to create a network of nationally funded, comprehensive child care centers. They were to be administered at the local level and provide high-quality early education, nutrition, and medical services. The services were to be universal, available to all regardless of income on a sliding scale. (During World War II, under the Lanham Act, the federal government supported 3,000 such child care centers in every state, except New Mexico, in order for women to go to work.)

The idea of a government role in child care had broad public support in the early 1970s. Surveys showed that a majority of both men and women not only favored setting up a workable child care system, but that they thought the federal government should play an important role in supporting it, Kimberly Morgan writes in her book, A Child of the Sixties.

Yet President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, writing that it would have committed the government “to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” A government role in child care, he said, should be an “evolutionary” decision, taken after “great national debate,” with an eye to “cement[ing] the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”

The time for that great national debate is now.

Family is still a keystone, but the shape and structure of what constitutes a family has evolved, opening up ties of love and choice, unlike in the early 1970s, when breadwinner-homemaker families were more of the norm for middle-income families, and were held up by policymakers as the ideal family arrangement. Families’ relationships to work has evolved, too, with families where all parents work in the marketplace now the norm. Lawmakers in the 1970s, and even some today, worry that a quality child care system will only encourage parents, namely mothers, to work outside the home. Yet that happened anyway—a majority of mothers of young children now work for pay both out of choice and necessity—without any encouragement or supportive child care system at all. Mothers are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of dual-income and single parent homes.

By failing to act in the 1970s, the makeshift early care and learning system that sprang up as a result not only doesn’t work, but the system itself is now what’s weakening families—creating financial hardship and stress for parents and families, particularly the most vulnerable, for teachers, and providers. The system is failing businesses, and failing to provide all children with rich, developmentally appropriate early care and education at a time when their brain architecture, the foundation for all future learning, is rapidly forming.

And the subject of that great debate should be not whether, but how to create a high-quality, affordable, easily available early care and learning system for all children from birth to age five for all families, particularly those most vulnerable, that:

  • Gives all parents better choices, both in how to combine their work and home lives, with more autonomy over flexible, predictable work schedules and career trajectories, and in how to organize early care and learning for their children that best suits their families’ needs.

  • Supports all children’s healthy brain and socio-emotional development.

  • Values paid and unpaid care work.

  • Enables early care and learning teachers to be well paid and well trained.

  • Ensures businesses will have workers able to focus and be productive, knowing their children are safe and well cared-for.

A functioning system will require a rethinking of the current jerry-rigged structure. Our goal with this report is to provide a broad vision of how critical a high quality early care and learning system is for a fair and egalitarian society, to establish some basic principles, to thoroughly explore a handful of innovative policy ideas, like universal basic income, and to set the stage for that great debate. Although not a comprehensive list, a functioning system will, at a minimum, require:

  • Sufficient and sustained funding for high quality early care and learning from the public and private sectors. Currently, parents shoulder 60 percent of the cost of care; federal, state and local governments 39 percent, largely to subsidize care for a small share of the working poor population; and private businesses and philanthropy 1 percent. Just as in K-12 education, parent tuition alone cannot cover the cost of care, even when teachers are paid very low wages. And families tend to need child care when parents are younger, and so haven’t had time to save (as many families do for children’s college education) and are nowhere near their full earning potential. Some small efforts to address the dysfunctional system are already underway: New York City has experimented with offering middle class parents child care loans; some small providers are forming Shared Services Alliances to reduce costs; Louisiana has implemented refundable school readiness tax credits to promote quality; and a handful of states, including Georgia, offer tax incentives to companies to build centers and subsidize the cost of care for their employees. These efforts could be part of a larger solution to provide and pay for quality early care and learning, but on their own are inadequate.

  • Well trained and well paid early care and learning teachers and the professionalization of the workforce. Currently, the lack of training and the poverty wages that teachers make lead to high turnover rates, instability, and variable quality.

  • Paid Family Leave for all parents. This would not only give families important time to heal and bond, but would also help solve, in part, the lack of affordable, quality infant care. The Care Index found that infant care in licensed care centers is more expensive than public university in 33 states.

  • Universal, voluntary, publicly funded, high-quality pre-K programs. A number of studies have found significant, long-term benefits from high-quality publicly funded pre-K, including better performance in kindergarten and a greater likelihood to graduate from high school, with the greatest impact seen on those from low-income and dual language families.

  • Focusing resources, training and programs at dual-language learners, a fast-growing part of the population.

Other innovative experiments, like home visiting programs; two-generation approaches that support both parents and children; and teacher training based on brain science, like the free, online Cox Campus at the Atlanta Speech School; show great promise. And while the cost of broad, systemic change may appear great, the real costs of continuing to lurch along in the current system without the full support of the public sector are even greater.

Let the great debate begin.