The solution is no secret, we can fix child care
Both political will and dollars are needed, but there is historical precedent
We can fix child care. Yes, it is broken, and that’s hurting child development, parental earning capacity, and the national labor supply. But child care providers, program directors, and other field experts know how to make high-quality care and early education accessible to all. It’s really no secret: Major public investment and committed political will are what’s needed. History proves these don’t come easy, but the rewards will exceed the costs of preserving a failing status quo.
The task is big, but it is not unprecedented. It took both political will and public investment to implement our public K-12 system. And today there are bellwethers suggesting the time may finally be ripe to revisit our relatively minimal public investment in child care.
The first step is acknowledging that a mostly privately funded child care market comes with constraints that require dramatic reform to make the sector equitable and broadly accessible. We must also address affordability for families and living wages for the child care workforce.
Today, the reality is that even at its high cost for parents, child care providers struggle to charge enough to deliver quality care. To cover the true cost of high-quality care, providers would have to charge so much that only the wealthiest families could afford it. When the choice is charging the true cost of care or keeping prices lower at the cost of quality, many children are excluded and many parents harmed, particularly the economically disadvantaged. But better policy, including investment that recognizes the cost of high-quality care, can alleviate this burden.
Models indicate that eliminating child care expenses for low-income families and capping child care expenses at 7% of income for others would decrease poverty by 40% among New Englanders in families that use child care. Covering or mitigating child care costs would also be a small step toward equity, as the poverty reduction is greatest for Black and Hispanic families.
But as we work to bring down costs for families, low wages for workers must also be addressed. Child care is a labor-intensive sector: Staffing accounts for between 60 and 80 cents of every $1 in a child care program budget, and the best quality centers have the lowest ratio of children-to-teachers. In a mostly private market, child care providers are paying educators via tuition from just a few families, and they can’t pay more without raising tuition – and pricing some parents out.
The result is that today early educators earn about one-third the wages of elementary school teachers, despite often-similar responsibilities, training, and education requirements. In New England, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston researchers found that 12% of early educators live below the poverty line, far higher than the average of 5.2% for all adults in the labor force. This under-compensation fuels annual turnover as high as 30%, which produces disruptions in care that are stressful to both children and parents – a fact on vivid display during the pandemic. Challenges retaining adequate staff can sometimes force classrooms or providers to shut down. Often the families this affects most are those with little choice to begin with – those with limited resources, in rural places, working unusual hours, or who have special care needs.
This is why policies that aim to lift up the early care and education sector must make it easier for providers to offer better pay without simply raising tuition. This would enhance their ability to offer high-quality early care and education at a lower cost, making it accessible to all families, not just those with the most resources. It would also make for a more attractive sector to the early education workforce.
Clearly, policies to cap family child care costs while increasing compensation for the sector’s workers would require an historic investment. But it’s not unlike the historic decision to support the public education system. We can also take lessons from far more recent history.
The pandemic provided an opportunity for a natural experiment: It forced the nation to consider what happens when workers don’t have access to child care. We’ve seen a staggering impact on parents’ ability to work, with the labor force participation of mothers still lower than pre-pandemic levels. We’ve also seen what happens when what was a norm for too many before the pandemic – child care was out of reach – becomes a widespread reality. These challenges remain in the national spotlight, and we have an opportunity to seize this moment. We can find the political will. We can make history by making investments that will benefit our children – and our economy – for generations to come.