Although it’s often said that children are our future, federal funding doesn’t seem to reflect this priority. A child’s early years are essential to their development, but when it comes to providing them care during these formative years, the U.S. fails to provide for hundreds of thousands of families. Child care poses three large obstacles to working parents: cost, availability, and quality. In most states, child care is more expensive than in-state tuition annually. Inconsistent and low-quality child care threatens the early childhood development of kids across the nation, setting them up for difficulty in the classroom, lower rates of college acceptance, and even lower employment rates. For their parents, lack of access to reliable child care and paid family and medical leave costs them $28.9 billion in wages annually. It also severely limits their employment prospects; approximately 2 million parents in 2016 reported making career sacrifices because of child care considerations.
These difficulties spill into other important aspects of life; a number of hot-button issues for 2020 Democratic candidates stem from lack of child care access. It’s inextricably tied to matters from gender equality in the workplace to accessible education. And it’s an issue that disproportionately affects women and low-income families. But despite the scope of its impact, child care doesn’t receive nearly the amount of national attention it warrants, particularly when it comes to federal funding.
The Child Care and Development Block Grant program subsidizes child care for low income families through the federal and state governments. Although it’s the largest federally funded program for child care assistance, the subsidies are often inadequate, with limited acceptance from day care centers, and only received by 15 percent of eligible families. The problems with federal funding point to a glaring problem of apathy in the face of decreasing child care access.
Some cities have laid the groundwork for better child care programs. New York and Washington D.C. have implemented promising universal prekindergarten programs that eliminate or subsidize the cost. Once D.C. started this program in 2009, it led to a 10 percent increase in labor participation among moms of young kids. But until there’s a national solution, the impact of this progress will remain limited.
The glass ceiling has become a major topic, especially with the increasing number of women in political office. But conversations about the wage gap and employment bias cannot take place without addressing one of the largest barriers to women’s workplace advancement. Women, who often shoulder the larger share of child care responsibilities, are forced to make more career sacrifices, such as working fewer hours, taking lower paying jobs, or foregoing time-consuming promotions. Moms are 40 percent more likely than dads to say that child care harmed their careers, according to a 2018 survey from the Center for American Progress. These statistics are even more concerning for families of color. Discriminatory practices in child care make availability an even bigger burden for these parents, while employment discrimination worsens the financial burden.
Criminal justice reform and education are also big areas of reform that benefit from access to child care. Better access to day care improves the odds for many formerly incarcerated people who fail to meet standards due to child care problems. Those out on bail would be able to show up to court hearings or drug rehabilitation programs if they could find an affordable place to take care of their children in the meantime. Those seeking employment to avoid recidivism would be able to do so without worrying about their child’s care. Parents, too, would be free to pursue a degree if they could place their child in someone else’s care as they attend class and study. Adult education rates would improve while student parent attrition rates decrease. No longer forced to choose between their children and their goals, Americans would have the freedom to make the best decisions for them and their families.
Child care doesn’t just affect American families. Businesses in the US lose $12.7 billion annually due to employee absenteeism and productivity problems arising from lack of child care. And although child care costs are high, child care workers themselves only earn, on average, $10.82 an hour. For candidates seeking to reach out to working Americans and business owners, child care is a solution that benefits both.
Some candidates are already incorporating it into their campaigns. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) called child care “the boulder that almost crushed me.” It’s a central aspect of her campaign and has also shown up in Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s (D-NY) “Family Bill of Rights.” Six of the eighteen Democratic presidential candidates support universal child care, with others providing plans for alternative child care oriented plans, such as universal pre-K. And while the GOP platform previously rejected universal pre-K as an intrusion of “the state in the family relationship,” there has been bipartisan support for initiatives targeted at early childhood education. President Trump revealed a plan earlier this year to address child care access, proposing a one time investment of $1 billion to be implemented through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. As child care costs continue to rise against the backdrop of stagnant wages, it will become an increasingly pressing issue for the national government to address, and one that 2020 presidential candidates will need to focus on.