Child Care Equity for Infants and Toddlers Requires More Money and Intention

By Shira Small and Alyssa Fortner 

Child care costs are often one of the biggest expenses for families, especially those with lower incomes. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already unaffordable child care prices. This is particularly challenging for families with infants and toddlers because the cost of their care is the highest compared to older children, while available care is the most limited. These expenses also come at a time when parents with infants and toddlers are often young or early in their careers. To advance equity in child care access for families with infants and toddlers, federal and state policymakers must boost funding dedicated to helping them afford it. 

Disparities in cost and federal support for care of America’s youngest children 

Across all types of care settings, infant and toddler care is more expensive than care for older children. Recent U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau data show that the annual median cost of infant care is roughly $5,000 more and the annual median costs for toddler care is roughly $2,000 more than for preschool age children. Infant and toddler care requires smaller classroom sizes and lower child-to-provider ratios, raising the price of care and limiting its availability. This applies to both home- and center-based providers. Center-based infant care is the costliest form of care, with the median price per child reaching $27,220 in 2022 dollars for one year of care. 

The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) seeks to help families with low incomes afford care by subsidizing its cost for families with low incomes. But the resources are limited. Only 1 in 6 eligible children currently receive subsidies, leaving millions of children and families without affordable care. Children younger than three accounted for 27 percent of children who received a subsidy in 2020. Even with the support of CCDBG, families’ needs far exceed the availability of assistance due to higher provider costs, lower reimbursement rates, and fewer available slots for infants and toddlers. 

Research shows that infant care costs 49 percent more than care for a preschooler, on average. Yet, child care subsidy rates for CCDBG—or the subsidized rates parents pay to providers—were only 26 percent higher for infant care providers. The gap between the subsidy rates and the cost of licensed infant care exceeds $400 per month in almost half of states, according to a 2020 Center for American Progress report.  

Decades of underfunding harms families and communities 

Without sustained federal funding to the child care sector, states are forced to make hard choices about how to allocate money and who receives care—with infants, toddlers, and their families often paying a significant price. 

Infants and toddlers experience one of the most important phases of childhood development, making access to quality child care incredibly valuable. But the resources to afford this care are not divided among all families equally. Families of color and families with low incomes face the greatest barriers accessing affordable, high-quality child care that meets their scheduling, linguistic, and cultural and/or community needs due to systemic racial and economic inequities. 

A lack of investments in child care and early education over many decades has exacerbated longstanding equity challenges related to increasing access to care and making it affordable. Reduced access to child care also reduces parents’ workforce participation, further reinforcing a cycle of inequality. Underinvestment has also made it more difficult to ensure the child care workforce is valued, supported, and paid well.  

Increased and targeted investments can strengthen equity in access 

For too long, states have been forced to make significant tradeoffs in their child care subsidy systems due to limited resources. Every positive step forward comes at the expense of another needed investment. Without larger, intentionally allocated investments, states will always be forced to consider restrictive policies aimed at reducing costs. These decisions will continue to result in certain populations having greater access to child care than others, harming families of color and families with low incomes most. 

Increasing federal funding for child care will allow states to extend subsidies to more parents of infants and toddlers as well as help eliminate the harmful compromises demanded by insufficient funding. This is vital to increasing the supply of child care for infants and toddlers, making care more affordable for parents, and supporting the care workforce.