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America can't afford the cost of inaction on child care

America can't afford the cost of inaction on child care
© UC Berkeley

The pandemic and economic downturn of the past year thrust America's child care crisis into the spotlight, providing an unprecedented opportunity for lawmakers not just to stabilize the child care system, but also to dramatically improve the lives of children, families and caregivers.   

Now, as the Biden administration and Congress move swiftly to advance ambitious funding measures, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  

We have a chance to adequately compensate and support a workforce that has subsisted on near-poverty-level wages. We can help young families better afford care, so they are no longer stretched beyond their means. We can ensure that young children grow in environments that promote their health and well-being, so they have the building blocks for learning once they enter the schoolhouse door. Or, we can return to the same broken system of child care that existed before the pandemic that indisputably served no one well.  

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Building a system that equitably meets the needs of children, families and providers will require historic investment. President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE’s American Families Plan has called for an investment of more than $400 billion for child care and early learning. Members of Congress have introduced legislation that includes spending at even higher levels to guarantee affordable child care for all those living below a certain income threshold. These levels of investment would exceed the amount that the federal government currently spends on low-income students in K-12 schools and spending devoted to Pell grants for college students in need.   

In short, building an equitable child care system would require us to fundamentally shift the way our country views and values child care. But compare that investment to the cost of inaction. What if we do nothing? Make no changes? Can we continue the way we were before the pandemic?   

Under our current system, fewer than one in six children eligible under federal rules receives a subsidy for child care. And for those who do receive support, the purchasing power of the assistance is inadequate to pay the high price of care, which can outstrip the cost of four-year public colleges in most states. For many of those who do not qualify for assistance, the rising cost of child care is prohibitive. Child care is the highest household expense in the Midwest, Northeast and South, surpassed only by the high price of housing in the West.    

Because of the high price and lack of alternatives, many parents have been forced to drop out of the workforce to care for their children — a trend that COVID-19 has accelerated. More than 10 percent of mothers with young children left their jobs due to child care responsibilities at some point in 2020.  

The Biden administration recognizes this and is acting swiftly to provide the resources to build the system of child care this country deserves. In addition to the American Families Plan’s investments in early learning, the administration plans to extend the expanded Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. The American Jobs Plan includes $25 billion for a child care growth and innovation fund and funding to reduce lead exposure in homes, schools and child care facilities. With these investments, there is potential to build the foundation children and families need to thrive in the future.  

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However, the solution does not end with federal government funding. States will ultimately steward any new federal investment, requiring them to demonstrate good governance and welcome diverse stakeholders’ ideas as they establish systems that have longer reach and serve substantially more children.  

Some states have already shown leadership during the pandemic. Michigan and Alaska implemented policies to reduce or eliminate family copayments for low-income families. California provided stipends to offer financial relief to providers caring for children in subsidized care. New Jersey began funding child care programs based on enrollment instead of attendance, so they could receive stable support and avoid shutting their doors. These policies helped parents and providers weather the pandemic and are good ideas worth continuing.   

For too long, child care has been the silent support enabling company productivity, individual economic mobility and children’s development. As Congress considers the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, we need to acknowledge that the solution for saving and strengthening child care lies in long-term, robust and thoughtful investment. Child care is a necessity, one that is important in every community and key to America’s recovery and long-term success.  

The cost of doing nothing is far too high and the country cannot afford to bear it.   

Mario Cardona is the chief of Policy and Practice at Child Care Aware of America and served as the senior policy advisor for Elementary and Secondary Education on President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council.