Investing in Child Care and Early Education Supports Families and Strengthens Economies
By Alyssa Fortner
Time and again, child care has been left out of conversations and bills that would provide the resources necessary to fully support parents, providers, and the economy, despite significant need and interest in addressing it. Without large-scale, sustained investments in the system, parents, grandparents, and other caregivers will continue to struggle to find a safe and affordable place for their children to be taken care of while they are at work. This is especially important for women of color and immigrant women who have disproportionately felt the effects of the pandemic.
Access to high-quality, accessible, and affordable early care and education is essential to the economic wellbeing of families and child care providers, who in turn are fundamental for robust and resilient state and national economies. For far too long, the lack of funding for the child care sector has led to significant tradeoffs resulting in inequitable policies and limited access for families who need it the most. At the same time, child care providers and early educators have been underpaid and undervalued. Until Congress makes intentional, transformative investments in building an equitable, high-quality child care and early education system, we will continue to lose billions of dollars in the national economy; see low retention rates in the early care and education workforce; and fail to improve economic and job security for families.
Across the country, families are struggling with rising costs. People are feeling the pain at the pump and seeing their grocery bills skyrocket. However, many families have long faced unaffordable costs for care, even before the pandemic. Deep-rooted inequity has disproportionately affected families of color, women, and single parents. Families with low incomes spend 35 percent of their income on care—far more than high-income families, who spend 7 percent of their income on such services. Unable to devote this share of resources, families with low incomes often face hard choices such as using lower-quality, less safe care; having to neglect other expenses like food; or even exiting the workforce completely. Due to the rise of inflation and the circumstances of the pandemic, this reality is more exacerbated than ever before. During the past 30 years, child care prices have risen more than 2 times the rate of inflation. This is faster than the price of food, housing, and other essential items. The pandemic has accelerated these trends, with child care inflation exceeding annual inflation in 2020 by nearly 4 percent.
To stabilize and provide sustainable growth to the economy, it is vital for caregivers to remain in or return to the workforce. And federal investment to appropriately fund a robust and affordable child care and early education system is one of the most crucial components of making that happen.
Beyond the high costs that families are shouldering, child care professionals and early educators are receiving poverty-level wages, little-to-no benefits, and few professional development opportunities. As inflation rises and wages remain stagnant—on average about $13 per hour—the child care and early education workforce faces historically high turnover rates. And those with their own children in the system feel the inequities and instability more deeply than ever.
The early childhood workforce is not only the backbone of the child care infrastructure, but of the nation’s economy. Without greater federal investment to support the child care system as a whole, including its workforce, we will not be able to fully address inflation or economic growth.
Investments that support a high-quality, accessible child care and early education system will pay longterm dividends for the economy. Currently, the weak care economy inhibits large-scale economic growth. Our national economy loses an estimated $57 billion a year in earnings, productivity, and revenue due to the inadequacies of our child care and early education system. Unless Congress takes urgent action, the instability and inaccessibility of the child care and early education system will continue to depress the economy, rather than expand it. Our nation faces no risk in investing in a child care system that works for all.