Why Don’t We Have Universal Child Care?

Demos’ new briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, offers an economic agenda that will enable all of us to thrive. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to dig into the ways that a race-conscious, populist economic agenda must elevate women. Over the next 2 weeks, Demos will share a series of blog posts that explore different ways that policy can impact women’s economic opportunity and stability. Today we look at how child care for all would lift up women and their families.

Family comes first. That means all families should have access to affordable and high-quality choices for their children’s early care and education. Millions of American parents need child care to be able to work or go to school, while children need quality care and education to get a strong beginning in life. Yet gendered assumptions about women’s roles have prevented the nation from achieving a child care system that would give families real choices about how to combine caregiving and work.

Nationwide, the average cost of full-time care in child care centers for children under age 5 is $9,589 a year, higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition. Child care rates for infants are significantly higher, and some areas of the country face much higher costs overall. As child care costs have soared in the past decade, a growing number of working and middle-class families are unable to afford the early learning and care that will enable their children to thrive. Merely accessing child care is a challenge for parents who work non-standard hours or have shifting, unpredictable schedules. Meanwhile, as many as half of American families live in areas with little or no access to quality child care at any time of day. African-American families are particularly affected by the escalating cost of child care and limited options, because they are more likely to have all parents in the workforce and fewer resources to pay for care. As a result of high costs and limited availability, many families go to extraordinary lengths in the scramble to handle work and care, working split shifts with a spouse, relying on a patchwork of family caregivers, paying huge portions of their household income for child care, dropping out of the workforce entirely, or resorting to unstable or substandard care.

The caregiving workforce is disproportionately made up of women of color and immigrant women. Their work is crucial to our society and our economy, yet is systematically underpaid and undervalued, leaving child care workers to struggle to sustain their own families.

All of us have a stake in ensuring that the next generation gets a good start in life. Policymakers should guarantee universal access to affordable, high-quality child care and preschool programs for all American families, and improve compensation and training for child care workers. The Child Care for Working Families Act, currently before Congress, would guarantee child care affordability for working families with children under age 13; improve the supply of child care, particularly for infants, children in underserved areas, and children with disabilities; raise the quality of child care by providing resources to states to help providers increase their skills, and requiring states to establish systems to measure the quality of child care providers; incentivize states to create high-quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year olds; support family, friend, and neighbor care providers who care for children during non-traditional hours; enhance funding for Head Start programs to provide full-day, full-year programming; increase training and compensation for the child care workforce, and ensure that all child care workers are paid a living wage. The Child Care for Working Families Act would establish child care as an entitlement for millions of American families. Policymakers aiming for a genuinely universal program could discard the income cap in the bill and provide support to all families with young children.

For a deeper look at child care, download Demos’ full briefing book and click “Provide Child Care for All” in the table of contents.