For a full recovery, the US must address its child care crisis

This op/ed on the U.S. child care crisis was orginially published in The Hill.

On Tuesday — in the face of converging crises of war, the ongoing global pandemic and an uneven economic recovery — President Biden acknowledged that this is a tough time for all Americans. But here’s the truth: Families with children under five are struggling more than everybody else.

From housing to diapers, families with young children face Sisyphean challenges. Across the country, 1 in 3 U.S. families with young children struggles with the cost of diapers, which hits low-wage families the hardest. Child Care Aware’s newly released Demanding Change report found the national average annual cost of child care is more than 10 percent of the median income for a married couple and more than 35 percent of the median income for a single parent.

Speaking to the extraordinary situation families find themselves in, President Biden brought preschool to the fore. He committed to getting parents back to work, cutting the cost of child care in half for most and implementing universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old.

The message we in the Head Start community heard, loud and clear, was: The challenges and opportunities laid out in President Biden’s first State of the Union Address depend, in large measure, upon the state of early childhood education and care.

Biden cited an affordability benchmark from the Department of Health and Human Services in his State of the Union address: “Middle-class and working families shouldn’t have to pay more than 7 percent of their income for the care of young children.” According to HHS, 7 percent is what is considered affordable.

The most recent Cost of Care Survey found 62 percent of families reporting more concern about the cost of child care now than in the last year. Demanding Change found the national average annual cost of child care in 2020 far exceeded this benchmark at $10,174. This figure is more than the average annual cost of in-state college tuition — $9,580 per EducationData.org.

What Head Start knows all too well is the lack of affordable, comprehensive early childhood care and learning has a disproportionate impact on Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian American and migrant children. Achievement gaps in many of these communities remain persistently high. And it is these families who are struggling most with poverty, food insecurity, unstable housing and the devastating impacts of COVID-related loss and trauma.

Head Start is not alone in the belief that everyone benefits if we can solve this problem.

Legislation pending in Congress makes critical investments in our nation’s youngest children that build on the successes of Head Start and Early Head Start. The National Head Start Association fully supports this approach. When our nationwide approach to supporting children is aligned to meet the urgent needs of families, communities and businesses, everyone makes gains.

The Head Start model is the most studied and proven in the U.S., with evidence of both short- and long-term positive impacts. According to research from Brookings analyzing the program since its inception “Head Start had striking impacts on the long-run educational and economic success of its students.” Whatever future early learning legislation comes down the road, it needs to ensure preschool and child care programs nationwide can meet high demand with high quality.

President Biden has ushered in one of the strongest labor market recoveries in American history. Alongside job growth, we are witnessing system-wide churn in the early childhood education sector as dedicated employees choose other paths with living wages. Per January’s job report, the child care sector remains 12 percent below its pre-pandemic staffing levels. This is a loss of well over 100,000 jobs. The only sector doing as badly is nursing homes.

The median Pre-K teacher earns $15.35 per hour. For child care workers, it’s $12.24 per hour, ranking as one of the very lowest-paid professions. This means women, the large majority of Head Start staff, are living in near-poverty conditions. And constant turnover puts many programs on the verge of closing down while decreasing the impact of high-quality early learning experiences for young children.

Legislation pending in Congress acknowledges these workforce challenges by providing for increased compensation, specifically delineating $2.5 billion per year for five years for the Head Start workforce. Swift and efficient distribution of these additional funds will be critical to stabilizing the staffing crisis currently facing Head Start and early childhood education programs everywhere.

In addition, child care is critical to sustaining a highly skilled workforce today. Nearly 60 percent of women with children who aren’t working or are working part-time said they would go back to work if they had access to quality, affordable child care. Nearly all parents (94 percent) have used at least one major cost-saving strategy to save money on child care in the past year, including reducing hours at work (42 percent), changing jobs (26 percent) or leaving the workforce completely (26 percent). As noted in the Harvard Business Review, “even before the pandemic, inadequate childcare was costing working parents $37 billion a year in lost income and employers $13 billion a year in lost productivity.”

President Biden has demonstrated he is a partner to educators. The American Rescue Plan, which he signed last year, made the single largest investment in child care of any president in the history of this country. The expanded and refundable Child Tax Credit, which expired at the end of 2021, had a dramatic impact on child poverty. The first month after it expired, the monthly child poverty rate rose 17 percent — a 41 percent increase over December.

In his 2021 message to Congress, he called for four additional years of public education, including two years of universal high-quality preschool. This year was the first time in history the word “preschool” has been mentioned in two consecutive presidential addresses to a joint session of Congress.

Preschool has been mentioned in the State of the Union just eight times: once in both 1965 and 1969 by President Lyndon Johnson; once, 20 years later, by President George H.W. Bush in 1989; and 24 years after that, a record four times in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

While President Biden’s work so far has been historic, it was intended only to stabilize the industry. Significant, sustained funding is required.

As President Johnson urged in 1967, we must continue to “reach out to our very young, little children. The chance to learn is their brightest hope and must command our full determination. For learning brings skills and skills bring jobs and jobs bring responsibility and dignity.”

About NHSA

The National Head Start Association is a not-for-profit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in school and in life. The opportunities offered by Head Start lead to healthier, empowered children and families, and stronger, more vibrant communities. NHSA is the voice for nearly 1 million children, 270,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start and Early Head Start grantees in the United States. ••• Media Contact: media@nhsa.org

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