One of the most important things we can do to help working families in poverty reach the middle class is promote access to safe, high-quality child care. This is certainly the case for families with a female head of household, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the new poverty data released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Earlier this week, the House took a step in the right direction by passing a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is the primary source of funding to help subsidize child care costs for low-income families. Given that the Senate passed a similar bill last spring, it’s likely to see the President’s desk soon. The program—last modified in 1996 as part of welfare reform—is badly in need of updating to reflect that child care is not only a work support, but also plays an important role in preparing children for school.
The bill makes important changes to the child care system, requiring minimum health and safety standards, background checks for providers, regular monitoring visits, and information to parents so they are aware of past violations. Such changes are long overdue: a number of children have died or sustained serious injuries in child care programs because basic health and safety measures were not in place. Child care standards are also embarrassingly low when compared to service industries like beauty salons and even pet grooming. The bill will apply mostly to children in publicly subsidized child care, but is likely to help raise minimum health and safety standards at all child care facilities and prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting unsafe child care.
In addition, the bill provides some stability by allowing children to remain in the program for a year. Under the current system, families often receive child care assistance for a few months at a time because of a small change in income or job schedule, or job loss. These changes will promote continuous access to early childhood programs for children, thereby helping parents sustain employment.
Child care reauthorization also reflects bipartisan support for early childhood programs—a rarity, given today’s gridlock. With just a week left before Congress adjourns for campaign season, the fact that Republicans and Democrats worked together—and across both houses of Congress—signals that early childhood education and promoting safety and quality is a priority for both parties.
While this bill marks an important step forward, there is still much work to do in order to provide affordable access to high-quality child care. The current child care subsidy program reaches just one in six eligible children. And while this bill puts minimum health and safety standards in place that will cost money to implement, there is no funding to defray costs for states. That means that improvements will come out of states’ block grant funds and reduce the number of children they can serve. If we really want to expand the number of children who receive quality child care, we need to increase funding and tie those increases to high-quality programs.
Without additional funding, states also cannot raise the assistance amounts for families. Current levels are typically too low to support access to high-quality programs that effectively prepare children for school. With the average annual cost of a child care center ranging from $4,000 to $16,000 per year and rising, we run the risk of families turning to the unregulated and sometimes illegal child care market, which is of questionable quality.
It’s also time to move the child care conversation past health and safety standards and consider how to help families access high-quality child care—child care that goes beyond safe, custodial care to support children’s development and school readiness.
We often talk about early learning in the context of efforts to expand access to preschool. However, after decades of brain research, we know that children begin learning from birth. For better or worse, children are absorbing their environment and learning from their experiences immediately. Child care programs that are safe but fail to provide nurturing relationships with providers and enriching environments for establishing cognitive and socio-emotional skills will undermine our collective investment in child care assistance and efforts to promote future social mobility.
Given that most children spend a good deal of time in child care programs before they enter kindergarten, failing to provide a quality early learning environment is a missed opportunity. Children (and parents) don’t care if a program is called child care, Head Start, preschool, or school. To artificially talk about preschool and child care in different veins at the federal policy level is a disservice to the 12 million children who spend much of their days in child care programs. It’s also a disservice to families that would like to attend programs like state preschool and Head Start, but have work schedules that don’t allow for part-day early childhood programs.
Hopefully we’ll get another opportunity to reauthorize CCDBG before another 18 years passes. And next time around, we’ll be ready to have a discussion about how federal funds can support early learning and working families in high-quality child care programs.