Only about one in six children who are eligible for childcare assistance in America actually receive it. In most states, childcare costs more than tuition at a four-year public university. And more than 50 percent of neighborhoods in America have a demand for childcare that exceeds supply.
But the Child Care for Working Families Act, reintroduced last month by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott and largely overlooked by the media, aims to change that. The legislation, which has been endorsed by all of the Democratic presidential candidates who are in Congress, would reach three in four children under age 13 by making quality childcare affordable for every low- and middle-income family who needs it. It would also provide a living wage to teachers, the majority of whom are low-income women of color. Childcare workers earn an average of $22,310 annually, and over 75 percent of them earn less than a living wage.
“This legislation not only provides an economic support for families so they can go to work; it’s also an antipoverty tool, and should be part of any economic justice agenda,” said Hannah Matthews, deputy executive director for policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
The system is currently funded through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), and because resources are so inadequate, the concurrent needs to serve more children, ensure the safety and quality of the facilities, and raise the pay of teachers are always pitted against each other. For example, in Mississippi, the state will pay a higher reimbursement rate to childcare centers serving voucher recipients if they are able to meet new quality standards. However, a study found that the improvements are cost-prohibitive for many centers serving low-income communities, averaging $11,475 per classroom. Without more resources, these centers would either opt out of a voluntary system, serve fewer children, or even shut down if unable to pay for mandatory improvements.
By contrast, the Child Care for Working Families Act would provide the funding necessary to meet quality standards, ensure that children receive the care they need, and provide teachers with a living wage. It establishes a sliding fee for services: free for lower-income families, and no family would pay more than 7 percent of their household income. (The 7 percent limit is the same one used under a similar proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren, and is based on the federal benchmark for childcare affordability.) This is particularly significant for families below the poverty level—they spend an average of approximately 30 percent of their household income on childcare compared to 8 percent for higher-income families. Moreover, the federal government would pick up about 90 percent of the cost of infant-toddler care.
“Infant-toddler is the most expensive care,” said Matthews. “It’s where we need the biggest investment in terms of increasing quality and expanding access, since quality infant-toddler care is really impossible to find in most places in this country and critically important to children’s early development.”
The bill also helps teachers pursue credentials and degrees by providing money for states to expand or establish scholarships; counseling; and compensation initiatives that cover tuition, fees, materials, and transportation. It creates pay parity for childcare workers who have the same credentials as elementary-school teachers.
The education assistance is critical, since those teachers are barely scraping by as it is. “Early-childhood educators make so little money [that many] need food stamps or other government supports to get by,” said Marisol Bello, spokeswoman for Community Change Action, which is working to mobilize grassroots support for universal childcare.
Additionally, the legislation aims to expand the number of high-quality childcare providers that serve children with disabilities, including through increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It helps address the disparities in summer learning between low-income students and wealthier children by providing funding so that Head Start programs can offer full-year, all-day programming. And it makes resources available for homecare at family, friend, and neighbor providers, including for training, business development, mentoring, licensing assistance, and home visits.The bill has 116 cosponsors in the House and 34 in the Senate, all Democrats. But Republicans, too, seem to at least recognize their constituents want action to address a crisis in childcare affordability and availability. The Trump administration recently touted its plan for a one-time investment of $1 billion spread over five years to increase childcare availability, with the money going to states that are “removing unnecessary regulations.” But those funds are insufficient to move the needle significantly, and deregulation is a non-starter for most childcare experts and for parents who are concerned about little perks like the health and safety of their children. More promising was bipartisan action last year to pass the largest ever one-year increase in federal funding for the CCDBG, $2.4 billion.
“That was important progress,” said Matthews. “But even with that amount, there is no way states can raise the quality [of the facilities], increase pay for teachers, and dramatically expand access to childcare. The needs are too great. Ultimately, we need to move away from these incremental increases in funding and move towards a system that is funded at a level where families can easily access the quality childcare they need.”
Senator Murray told The Nation that last year’s funding increase never would have happened “without the moms and dads who called their representatives, came to their offices, and never gave up.” Now, she and Representative Scott are working with parent advocacy groups, labor unions, early-childhood-education groups, and others to push for this legislation. For the senator, this is personal, and reminiscent of her early career. “I got my start in politics by fighting to save my own kids’ preschool program. After being told by a state senator [that] I couldn’t make a difference because I was ‘just a mom in tennis shoes,’ I mobilized 13,000 parents to speak out and convince our state legislature that this program was worth saving. I saw the power of organized and passionate parents who were fighting for their children’s futures, and I’m seeing it again.”
That was more than 30 years ago, and now Senator Murray believes we are “in a transformative moment in American politics.” She attributes the attention being paid to childcare to “to the record number of women who ran for office last year, including many young moms.”
“More women, more people of color, more people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds are running for office, and it’s changing the way Congress talks about economic issues,” she said. “As our government continues to look more like the American people and people continue to speak out, I’m confident that issues impacting working families’ bottom lines—like childcare, paid leave, and wage discrimination—will continue to get attention and the urgency they deserve.”
While the Child Care for Working Families Act won’t get through a Republican senate nor gain the support of the current White House, voters can demand that all 2020 candidates share how they will respond to this very basic, unmet need in America.