7 Things to Know About Child Care and Universal Pre-K in the Build Back Better Act

By Alyssa Fortner

The Build Back Better Act provides a historic, transformative investment in child care and early education. Because the field has been underfunded, under-resourced, and unjust since its inception, this legislation offers a long-overdue chance to build a more sustainable and equitable system that works for all families. 

Currently, families must shoulder the high price of care for their children—if they can access it. And providers—disproportionately women of color and immigrant women—are paid poverty-level wages, receive inadequate benefits, and often lack training and professional development opportunities. 

Here are 7 things you should know about the child care and universal pre-K provisions in the Build Back Better Act, which will: 

1. Lower costs for families: In 32 states, a typical family’s child care costs would be lowered by $5-$6,000, and about 5 million families would pay nothing. Additionally, no eligible families will pay more than 7 percent of their income on child care based on a sliding fee scale, regardless of the number of children they have—and many families will pay much less. Families earning below 75 percent SMI would pay nothing. 

2. Guarantee high-quality child care for families: Under this legislation, 9 out of 10 families with children under age 6 could be eligible for guaranteed child care assistance. Eligible families include those who are income eligible—earning up to 2.5x state median income (SMI)—and who participate in a wide range of eligible activities including employment, job search, job training, education, health treatment, and family or medical leave, among others. 

3. Increase availability of care: The legislation will build the supply of child care in child care center and homes so that it’s available when and where families need it. During the first three years after the legislation’s enactment, a quarter to one-half of all funds will be dedicated to supply and quality building activities, including constructing and renovating facilities, covering operating costs, and more. 

4. Improve compensation, professional development, and business sustainability for providers: Child care providers would be paid at least a living wage, if not salaries equivalent to those earned by elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience. The bill also invests in training and professional development. States would have to analyze and estimate the rates child care providers charge to ensure they support appropriate staff salary levels and the providers’ long-term sustainability. 

5. Enhance quality of care for children: States would be required to provide quality child care for families and support continuous quality improvement. Quality would be measured through a tiered system, and it would be developed to include age-appropriate standards for center-based, family child care, and nontraditional hour care settings.

6. Establish mixed delivery, universal pre-K: The proposal builds on existing state programs to provide federal dollars to support equitable, free, and inclusive access to high quality pre-K for every three- and four-year-old in child care programs, schools, Head Start centers, and family-based settings. It also includes support for raising wages for early educators.

7. Center racial and gender equity: By ensuring families with low and middle incomes get the largest benefits by using a sliding scale based on income, more families will be able to access affordable, high-quality care. The increased wages and support for providers will create quality jobs with higher wages for child care workers—who are disproportionately women of color. With women being most likely to have been left behind in the pandemic, the bill’s focus on wages is critical to supporting women’s economic recovery. It also prioritizes reaching populations that are underserved, including children and families with low incomes, infants and toddlers, children with disabilities, dual language learners, and those receiving care during nontraditional hours. 

This is a once-in-a-generation moment for children, families, providers, and our country. The child care and pre-K provisions of the Build Back Better Act, along with many other family- and child-focused provisions could change the trajectory for millions.