Access to Affordable, High-Quality Child Care: A National Economic Priority

By Stephanie Schmit and Hannah Mathhews

“It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” –President Obama, State of the Union 2015

Last night, child care got long-overdue national recognition of its centrality to working families, to communities, and to the country. Families across the country rely on child care to go to work and to succeed economically. When families are able to access quality child care, children are better prepared for success in life and parents are more likely to succeed on the job as they gain peace of mind from knowing their child is well cared for and thriving. Together, these two goals are critical to our nation’s economic competitiveness now and in the future.

The president announced a plan to make quality child care more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children. The president’s proposal includes a plan to streamline child care tax incentives to give middle-class families with young children a tax credit of up to $3,000 per child. It will also help parents pay for the high cost of quality care by creating more child care slots; details on this aspect of the plan are not yet available. The president lifted up child care as an investment worthy of redirecting savings from tax reform efforts.

It’s time for a national dialogue and action on child care quality and affordability. Far too many families—from the poorest to middle-income earners—struggle to meet the high costs of child care. And far too many children are left without access to quality settings. Low-income working parents who are fortunate to receive child care assistance from the limited resources available are more likely to remain employed, move up in their jobs, and increase their earnings—strengthening family finances and our national economy. Children do better in school and in life when their parents work and have more income. Yet the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which is the source of federal child care assistance, today helps fewer children today than it did in 1998.

President Obama’s recognition of the importance of access to high-quality child care was included in a larger proposal aimed at increasing access to opportunity for working families through investments in child care and community college, as well as access to paid sick days and paid family leave. Congress’ recent reauthorization of CCDBG shows that improving child care quality can garner broad, bipartisan support. Attention to and action on a larger set of policies, including free community college tuition and paid leave, that help working families is worth a closer look. Case in point: the United States is currently the only developed country that does not offer government-sponsored paid maternity leave.

Realizing the full potential of the new child care law and increasing slots for quality child care will take resources. Continuing the work, and investing the needed dollars, to make quality child care affordable for all families will not be easy. The president started an important conversation last night—now, it’s time for policymakers to follow with action.  

Read the full transcript of the State of the Union address >>