According to Census data released today, 4.9 million children under age six (21.0 percent)—including about half of related children under age six in families with a female householder—were living in poverty in 2015. While this is a decrease from the 5.5 million children under age six (23.5 percent) living in poverty in 2014, this number is still far too high. These children are disadvantaged by a lack of resources at home and in their neighborhoods, and may be negatively affected as their parents deal with financial stress. We need to act to help families escape poverty and ensure that children in poverty still have opportunities for success in school and in life. Fortunately, we have a strategy that can help address both goals: investing in high-quality child care and early education.
Reliable, high-quality child care and early education enables parents to work so they can support their families and lift them out of poverty and gives children the learning opportunities they need for a strong start. Yet many parents, particularly those with low incomes, struggle to afford average-priced—much less high-quality—child care on their own. Families with incomes below poverty that pay for child care spend 30 percent of their income on care, and families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of poverty that pay for child care spend 18 percent of their income on care, compared to 7 percent for families with incomes at 200 percent of poverty and above. The major federal child care program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, aims to address this financial burden by helping low-income families afford child care. Yet fewer than one in six children eligible for child care assistance receives it, and the number of children receiving assistance has been declining over the past several years.
High-quality child care is also in short supply. The quality of interactions between teachers and children is a central determinant in the overall quality of care, yet low salaries make it extremely difficult to attract and retain well-qualified teachers. The high-quality child care programs that do exist often do not meet the needs of low-income families, because these programs typically cannot accommodate the evening, night, weekend, or variable hours that many parents in low-wage jobs work.
To address these gaps, we need a major investment in boosting the quality of care and ensuring it is affordable for poor and low-income families, in order to improve these families’ current financial circumstances as well as their children’s future economic prospects.