Inside America’s Child Care Crisis: Even After a ‘Historic’ Federal Investment, Today’s System Only Serves 1 in 6 Eligible Kids. Could More Funding Now Be on the Way?
Correction added on June 12th
The state of child care in the United States is commonly regarded as being in a state of crisis. It is expensive, often surpassing the cost of college tuition in many states, and parents struggle to find suitable options. Child care workers are poorly compensated, resulting in many of them relying on public assistance. Furthermore, the available programs do not always meet the quality standards necessary for promoting optimal brain development in young children.
Last year, Congress made a significant increase in federal funding for child care, providing states with an opportunity to address the long-standing problems caused by insufficient funding. The additional $2.37 billion allocated for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 enables states to expand program capacity, increase payments to providers, and implement congressionally mandated safety and quality improvements.
There has been bipartisan support for addressing this issue, with politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and adviser, advocating for policies to improve child care. Christine Johnson-Staub, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, states, "There is currently a national conversation about expanding eligibility and implementing universal child care. Regardless of political affiliation, people understand the critical importance of child care for families and its economic impact."
While the funding increase has been celebrated as a significant step forward, advocates are still pushing for additional funds. Currently, only 1 in 6 eligible children are receiving child care services. Early-education groups have requested an additional $5 billion for fiscal year 2020, with House Democrats proposing to allocate approximately half of that amount, $2.4 billion.
The bill is currently being considered in the House this week. However, obtaining additional funds for child care, like any other budgetary allocation, relies on Congress and President Trump reaching a budget agreement that increases overall spending limits.
The increased funding is channeled through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which has been in existence since the 1990s. It provides funding to states, territories, and tribes to support child care for low-income families. Children participating in the program must be under the age of 12 and have at least one parent who is employed or in school. Federal laws set the maximum family income at 85 percent of the state’s median income, although states can set a lower threshold.
In addition to the annual appropriation by Congress, the child care program also receives approximately $3 billion in mandatory funding each year. This funding, like the financing for Social Security and Medicaid, is automatically allocated without requiring congressional action. However, funding for the child care program had not increased since the mid-1990s.
Jay Nichols, the director of federal policy and government affairs at Child Care Aware of America, explains that historically, this program has been underfunded, especially considering its dual purpose as both an educational policy for children and an economic policy that facilitates parental employment. As a result, fewer children have been able to benefit from the program compared to a few years ago. In 2016, the average monthly number of children served was 1.37 million, the lowest figure since the mid-1990s.
According to Nichols, covering every eligible child would require approximately $100 billion in annual funding, taking into account current spending and the number of eligible children. Policymakers would also need to address the issue of widespread child care deserts where child care providers are scarce.
To allow states to plan for the long term, a significant portion of the funding should come from mandatory sources, which would be exempt from the discretionary decisions of Congress.
Advocates believe that the new funding could allow states to implement the recommendations outlined in the 2014 law and potentially include up to 230,000 more children in the program nationwide.
A study conducted by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in February revealed that 44 states planned to allocate the new funding to fulfill certain regulations outlined in the 2014 law, such as providing professional development opportunities for child care workers. Additionally, more than half of the states intended to utilize the funding for conducting background checks on workers, as required by the same law.
Only 16 states planned to use the funding to enroll more families from their waitlists. Arkansas and Mississippi even managed to clear their waitlists entirely.
Many states also chose to increase the value of monthly vouchers, which gave families more options and allowed more funds to be directed towards providers with lower salaries.
One state that implemented this approach was Iowa, which has lost 42 percent of its child care providers over the past five years due to insufficient compensation.
Lawmakers in Maryland have taken steps to address the increase in federal funds by providing additional state funding. As a result, the state has been able to raise the subsidy rate to cover 60 percent of average costs by the summer of 2021. They have also raised the income cap for eligible families to over $70,000 for a family of four. Furthermore, enough funding has been allocated to clear the waiting list for assistance.
This means that new families can now participate in the program and have more options available to them. It is hoped that this increase in funding will encourage more child care providers to accept vouchers in the future. Christina Lopez, co-president of the Maryland Association for the Education of Young Children, highlights the significance of these changes, stating that Maryland has shown a commitment to early childhood education and the impact it has on us.
However, Lopez acknowledges that there is still more to be done in order to provide high-quality child care options to all families. While the increase in funding is seen as a positive investment, it is important to continue working towards improving the system.
Correction: This article has been updated to provide clarity on the amount of mandatory funding and discretionary funding allocated to the program. In the years leading up to the 2018 increase, the annual discretionary funding was roughly equal to the mandatory funding. However, discretionary funding now exceeds the mandatory funding allocation.