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Investing in child care Is the holiday gift we all need

The best holiday gift I ever received came from my daughter’s preschool program. Every year around this time, the teachers would compile scrapbooks for each child, with photos and captions like, “Fingerpainting with friends,” “Exploring shapes,” or “Jumping in leaf piles!” These books are still among my most treasured possessions.

I had the great luxury of placing my daughter in a high-quality preschool program, where she spent each day playing and learning. For many low-income parents, however, it’s a struggle just to find safe child care that they can afford.

{mosads}Child care is an essential piece of our country’s infrastructure. Without child care, parents can’t go to work. In fact, businesses in the United States lose over four billion dollars each year due to child care breakdowns. And, because children’s brains are literally built in the first few years of life, high-quality early care and education is critical to developing the workforce of tomorrow. Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has demonstrated that investing in early childhood promotes economic growth and reduces societal costs, because children are better prepared to graduate high school and enter the workforce.

However, child care is tremendously expensive.  Center-based care for a child under the age of four is $9,589 a year, higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition. For working poor parents, managing work and child care can be a difficult and even dangerous balancing act, as they struggle to maintain employment while ensuring that their children are well-cared-for in their absence.

Often, the only way that low-income families can afford care is through state child care subsidies, funded through the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant.

But this is about to change.

In 2016, the federal government issued a new set of regulations for the Child Care Development Block Grant. These regulations make a lot of sense. They call for increased health and safety requirements for child care providers. They require more training for those providing care. And they mandate that states create more family-friendly policies, like paying for care for a few months after a parent is fired so that she or he has the opportunity to look for a new job.

As the executive director of All Our Kin, a nonprofit that works to increase the quality of child care in low-income communities in Connecticut, I was happy to see these new regulations, which respond to the needs of both parents and children.

However, the requirements come with a hefty price tag. And despite the increased cost, no additional dollars were allocated to the program. As a result, big trouble is looming for children, for parents, and for our child care infrastructure.

Connecticut, my state, is the canary in the coal mine in terms of what is happening to poor working families. Our state implemented the new regulations right away, while most other states applied for waivers that gave them more time. As a result, we are facing a projected shortfall of 33 million dollars, at a time when our state budget is already in crisis.  In response, the state has closed the child care subsidy program to new families. So, if a young couple, working hard and just getting by, have a child this year, they won’t receive any help in paying for care.

As a result, the parents of nearly 11,000 children, in our small state alone, will be unable to pay for child care.  These parents will face a set of bad choices. Do they cut back on their hours at work, or drop out of the labor force altogether? Do they place their children in unregulated child care settings, potentially placing their safety at risk? And what will their decisions cost their children, given how critical the early years are to development in the later years?

By 2018, unless something is done, hardworking parents around the country will be in the same position that parents in Connecticut are in right now. In the wealthiest country in the world, we will be failing hundreds of thousands of children and families, and, in the process, chipping away at the child care infrastructure that makes it possible for parents to keep working and children to keep learning.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle care about building our national structure and strengthening our economy. Child care is every bit as vital to the success of our workforce as roads, bridges, and tunnels. If our congressional leadership is committed to shoring up our national infrastructure, create jobs, and make it possible for parents to go to work, they should create a plan that fully funds the Child Care Development Block Grant, so that all children can have access to safety, quality care.

In the process, not only will they support the workforce of today; they’ll also build the workforce of tomorrow. That’s a holiday gift that benefits us all.

Jessica Sager, Esq., is the founder and executive director of All Our Kin, Inc., and a lecturer at Yale University. She is a Pahara Aspen Fellow and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 


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