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Child Care: New Investments Should be at the Top of Policymakers’ Lists

The high cost of child care is not a new topic.  For many years, reports have shown how it exceeded college tuition in many states.  A report just released by the Economic Policy Institute demonstrates that child care takes up a significant portion of families’ budgets and illustrates how child care costs pose a particular challenge for minimum-wage workers and families with infants and toddlers.

Parent holding child's hand

What does not get pointed out in many reports on this topic is that lowering the costs are not an option since the bulk of child care costs consist of child care providers’ salaries.  The average salary for a child care provider was $10.33 per hour in 2013, just one percent higher than in 1997 when adjusted for inflation.

So, is child care affordable is only one question that we should be asking. The second is does being a child care provider allow someone (most likely a woman) to support herself and her own family?  If it did, then child care would actually be less affordable than it is now.

There is widespread agreement that the first five years of life lay the groundwork for a child’s future success in school and in life.  This has led to a growth of states’ investments in prekindergarten around the country in both red and blue states.  In several states and in the District of Columbia and New York City, a full school day of preschool is available to all families regardless of income.  Middle income families who face little help with their child care costs view prekindergarten as a significant benefit and a help with their child care costs. There is still more to be done on the prekindergarten front. While 40 states and the District of Columbia funded prekindergarten funded prekindergarten programs in the 2013-2014 school year, these programs reached only 29 percent of four-year olds and 4 percent of three-year olds.

High-quality child care not only supports children in their earliest years but also enables parents to work and support their families.  Despite this, the average number of children receiving federal child care assistance each month in 2014 fell to 1.41 million, the lowest level since 1997. The providers who support the children receiving care are not faring well with only one state setting its reimbursement rates at the federally recommended level as of February, 2014.

Last year Congress, by a vote of 98 to 2 in the Senate and unanimously in the House, approved a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the country’s major child care program. The reauthorization of CCDBG aimed to increase the health and safety of children in child care and make the program more family friendly and supportive.  However, they neglected to ensure that the funding necessary to support the reforms would be available.

As states now face implementing the changes without increased funding, it is possible that even fewer families could be receiving help in paying for child care.

It’s time that child care, which helps children learn and parents work and support their families, moves to the top of the priority list in Washington and state legislatures.  As Congress debates funding levels for FY 2016, a significant new investment in CCDBG should be at the top of the list.  State legislatures need to do the same. These funds are essential to our current and future economy and it’s time for legislators to step up to the plate.