Single mother Rochean Cofield has had to work two jobs while going to school, leaving the house at 5 a.m. and often not returning until 10 p.m., in order to afford child care for her 10-year-old. This schedule gives her barely any time to study or play with her daughter. But even Tasha and John Konyha, who make more than the average family in their area, have struggled to get child care for their 3-year-old son, choosing either between a place they couldn’t afford three minutes from their house or an affordable one that’s a 45-minute drive away.
The struggle to get child care has become an acute crisis in this country. The cost can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars a year, rivaling tuition at many public colleges. Yet even as parents shell out all that money, less than 10 percent of day care centers are of high quality. More than half of U.S. parents live in an area where they can’t find a space for their kids.
The system, if it can be called that, is clearly in desperate need of reform. But what should be done, and how? Two progressive organizations, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Make It Work Campaign, have teamed up to offer a guideline of top priorities for revamping U.S. child care. They offer an important starting point for a conversation that often goes neglected—but they avoid even bolder proposals that could completely end the crisis.
CAP and Make It Work’s guide, released last week, attempts to fit all of the child-care puzzle pieces together at once, since attacking just one—such as cost, quality, or availability—without addressing the others will only exacerbate the problems. If, for example, the government gives parents more money to afford care, that won’t do much if those parents can’t find an open slot, nor will it necessarily improve quality if providers have no incentives to change. But demanding that centers create more spots improve their standards, or pay providers more without any extra money, will simply put many of them out of business.
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The guide calls for the government to expand its current threadbare safety net of child-care assistance so that it reaches all low- and middle-income families and ensures that none of them spend more than 7 percent of their incomes on care. It says the government should also invest in building and upgrading more centers so that people can get the care they need, including during nights and weekends. And it ties all this money to improving quality standards, such as measures that would increase pay and benefits for providers themselves, who, at the median, make about $10 an hour.
“We try to provide broad contours of what good, progressive child-care reform looks like,” said Katie Hamm, vice president of early childhood policy at CAP and one of the co-authors of the report.
So where would all this new money come from? The report proposes expanding and improving the existing child-care assistance that comes from the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which gets distributed to states so they can give families subsidies. That pot of funding goes to low-income families who need help affording care. But the block grant structure means that the government puts a fixed amount of money into the pot, and over time inflation and population growth has eroded its value, falling 3 percent since 2000, so that it serves fewer and fewer families. It currently reaches the smallest number of children since its inception, having dropped 364,000 between 2006 and 2014.
Instead, CAP and Make It Work would turn this funding source into mandatory spending that would reach all families who need help “by providing a guarantee so families who are middle- and lower-class know they can receive it,” Hamm said. The government would offer assistance on a sliding scale so that families never pay more than 7 percent of what they make.
The plan is far better than what we have now. There is very little assistance for families who can’t afford day care, and most of it goes to the lowest-income ones, though middle-income families also struggle to afford it. But there are some other options that could go even further.
Although the blueprint still preserves a lot of parental choice, giving them funding and allowing them broadly to choose their provider, it overlooks how difficult it is to make that choice. The guide addresses quality by offering higher payments to providers that would cover the costs of upgrades—such as hiring more teachers or revamping classrooms so that they’re safer and more stimulating—and in return expect them to meet progressively higher quality standards.
But shopping for child care is different than shopping for most products. “Buying child care is not like buying a pair of sneakers,” said Chris Herbst, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. “It’s such a difficult product to evaluate in part because you only know how good it is after you’ve consumed it for a while.” Even experts in children’s development struggle to nail down exactly what makes for good quality care, he pointed out, so asking individual parents to figure it out as they shop for providers is absurd. “The market is not operating all that well because parents are ill-informed.” In the existing CCBDG program, 13 percent of funding given to children is being used at unregulated providers.
So the government could instead do a lot of the choosing for parents. Rather than offering them money to go out and buy child care on the private market, it could invest in and expand publicly funded and publicly run programs like Head Start and Early Head Start or state-run prekindergarten programs. Those high-quality options could incentivize private providers to upgrade in order to compete.
It’s not such a preposterous idea. The country at one time had a government-funded and -run child-care system that was affordable and available to all parents, no matter their income, for long hours every day. The federal government created it through the Lanham Act during World War II to incentivize mothers to get jobs in factories as part of the war effort. And Herbst, who has studied the program, found that it had big positive impacts on mothers’ work and incomes, as well as their children’s outcomes later in life. Another group of economists has similarly found that boys who were cared for in these centers earned more and were more likely to graduate college when they were older.
Today, Head Start and public prekindergarten programs look a lot like what the government did during World War II. As does the child-care system run by the Department of Defense, which offers high-quality care to all military parents at an incredibly affordable cost, with the government footing most of the bill.
“What would be so wrong with a Head Start for all program?” Herbst wondered. “Highly centralized child-care programs like the Lanham Act, like Head Start, like prekindergarten … basically standardize quality. It doesn’t matter how informed or ill-informed you are.”
Hamm doesn’t rule out the possibility. “You can do both and,” she said of giving assistance to parents for the private market versus direct publicly created programs. She argued that once more parents have funding and are able to buy high-quality care, there will be a bigger market for public programs. But she still highlighted the importance of maintaining flexibility in parents’ choices.
Another difference between the Lanham Act or many public pre-K programs and what the blueprint envisions is that the blueprint only offers assistance to families of certain incomes, rather than making it universally available. The authors chose that model mostly out of political considerations. “We have to be conscious of the political climate,” Hamm said, “and fiscally conscious to direct resources to the families that need it the most.”
But there are also political benefits to universal programs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said of Social Security, which provides benefits to all citizens, that the fact that people pay in and then draw a check “give[s] the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” When everyone feels they have a right to a program, it fosters a sense of ownership among them, building a political constituency for it. It can also defend against the idea that it’s a handout to a select group; even Tea Party activists who agitated against government spending defend Social Security and Medicare.
Any of these proposals, of course, stand in stark contrast to what President Donald Trump has put forward. Although he has promised to “fight … to make sure that all mothers, and all families, have access to affordable child care,” his plan would simply offer a tax credit that would be worth far more to wealthy families than poor ones. It would do nothing to address quality, availability, or the poverty wages earned by child-care providers.
So while the details of any child-care proposal will matter for parents and their children, at least progressive advocates all agree: The system needs a complete overhaul that addresses cost, availability, and quality all at once.