Child care in the United States is inaccessible and unaffordable for many working families. At the same time, child care workers—overwhelmingly women and disproportionately women of color—are severely underpaid. With too little funding available, child care providers struggle to maintain staffing levels necessary to keep classrooms open, resulting in growing waitlists and dwindling supply that limits families’ choices for care.
As child care advocates continue to push for increased federal investments,1 the Biden administration has taken steps to improve access and affordability through its fiscal year 2024 budget proposal.2 This includes $980 million in additional funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG); child care requisites attached to companies seeking significant CHIPS and Science Act funding; the economic report to the president,3 which highlights the vital economic role of child care; and a recent set of executive actions designed to improve care and support care workers.4
These actions demonstrate the administration’s commitment to creating a sustainable, accessible child care and early learning system, but there is still work that needs to be done. In particular, the recently reintroduced Child Care for Working Families Act (CCWFA) can further invest in care infrastructure to reduce costs for families, support early childhood learning and development, bolster the child care workforce, and address racial and gender disparities in the care system.5
Below are five things to know about the Child Care for Working Families Act and the issues it aims to address.
1. The CCWFA would invest in children, families, communities, and the economy
The Child Care for Working Families Act would increase access to affordable child care, ensuring that no working family pays more than 7 percent of their income on child care. And for families earning below 85 percent of their state’s median income, child care would be free.6 The bill also expands categorical eligibility so that more low-income families will automatically qualify for support, reducing administrative barriers for those who need child care the most.
Child care is an economic issue
- Child care is the work that enables all other work. When families have access to affordable, quality child care, they can participate in the workforce, search for a job, or obtain education, boosting both economic growth and family financial stability.
- Access to child care benefits families across a range of areas, leading to improved child and family health, better educational outcomes, and economic stability.7
- Across the country, 67 percent of children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce, with more than 20 million children requiring regular care.8
- Estimates suggest that the United States loses $122 billion in revenue, productivity, and lost earnings annually due to the lack of investment in child care.9
2. The CCWFA would provide resources to support high-quality early care and education
The Child Care for Working Families Act provides resources to support high-quality child care, including funding to pay a living wage to staff since quality jobs are directly correlated with quality care; to provide child care workers with professional development opportunities; and to implement required safety standards and trainings. The proposed legislation also includes funding to help providers improve their quality of care. Moreover, it expands funding for Head Start and Early Head Start to promote full-day, full-year programming and strengthens policies to ensure a mixed-delivery preschool program for the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
High-quality child care has lifelong benefits
- Babies’ brains make more than 1 million neural connections per second in the first three years of life, laying the foundation for all their future development and learning.10 Second only to a child’s home, child care is where much of that foundation is shaped.
- High-quality child care is linked to improved cognitive and language development, social and emotional development, and later school achievement.11
- Investing in young children is one of the smartest things the country can do because of these lifelong benefits: Children who attend high-quality early learning programs are less likely to need special education or grade repetition in elementary school and are more likely to graduate from high school and grow up to be active participants in their communities and the economy.12
- Economists estimate a return of $4 to $13 for every dollar spent on early education.13
3. The CCWFA would increase child care worker wages and support their professional development
The Child Care for Working Families Act establishes Building an Affordable System for Early Education (BASE) grants for providers to increase staff wages, provide cost-of-living increases and graduated pay increases, and support staff’s professional development. Additionally, the CCWFA’s Birth through Five Child Care and Early Learning Program requires that states pay child care workers based on a cost study that includes a wage floor and wages that are equivalent to those of elementary educators with similar credentials and experience in the state, adjusted on an annual basis for cost-of-living increases.
Child care workers are underpaid and undervalued
- For too long, child care workers—disproportionately women of color—have been underpaid and undervalued for the important work they do.14
- More than three-fourths of early childhood educators hold some kind of professional credential, but full-time teachers are paid less than $14 per hour ($29,120 per year), and infant and toddler educators make less than $11 per hour ($22,880 per year), on average.15
- In many parts of the country, providers are losing workers to jobs that pay more and have more competitive benefits, including McDonalds, Target,16 and Sheetz.17 As one early educator at a preschool in North Carolina noted in an interview with The New York Times, “I make $10 an hour to shape the future of children but make $15 an hour to hand someone a cup of coffee.” Even with an associate degree in early childhood education and teaching full time, this individual needed a second, higher-paying job at Starbucks in order to make ends meet.18
- When accounting for the more than 40 hours per week that most child care workers work, real wages are much lower: approximately $8 per hour for a full-time teacher and $6 per hour for an infant and toddler educator. Notably, some family child care providers, who are often sole proprietors, report working nearly 70 hours per week.19
- As a result of the low pay in the field, nearly one-third of child care workers have faced food insecurity, and one-fourth have reported needing one or more additional jobs to afford basic needs, including food, housing, and utilities; even before the pandemic, more than half of child care workers qualified for some form of public assistance.20
- The child care workforce has lagged behind other sectors in its recovery from the pandemic: As of March 2023, the sector still had 56,500 fewer workers than it did in February 2020—representing 6 percent of the prior workforce. In contrast, nonfarm jobs saw 100 percent recovery and private sector jobs saw 103 percent recovery, as of September 2022.21
- More than 50 percent of licensed child care providers are operating below capacity, and serving fewer children, because they cannot hire or retain enough staff, with care for infants and toddlers being the hardest for families to find.22
- The ongoing gap in the child care workforce contributes to reduced capacity in child care slots for families, amounting to as many as 169,500 unserved infants and toddlers and 452,000 unserved preschoolers, based on recommended caregiver-to-child ratios.23
- Raising pay for child care workers would help to boost recruitment and retention, improve their health and well-being, and support overall quality of care.
4. The CCWFA would enable families to choose a child care program that meets their needs
The Child Care for Working Families Act allows states to disburse BASE grants to a range of child care programs, including centers, home-based care, and family, friend, and neighbor care. The bill also promotes inclusivity and parent choice by supporting programs that offer nontraditional hours and services for dual-language learners, infants and toddlers, and young children with disabilities, as well as kids in foster care and those experiencing homelessness. States that do not opt into the federal partnership would still receive BASE grants, and the additional funding opportunities would be made available to localities, including cities, counties, or other local governments. Funding would also go toward expanding access to Head Start.
Families need a range of child care options
- Child care is not a one-size-fits-all system: Parents need a range of options to suit their schedules and family needs and to give them choice over the types of care environments for their children.
- Providing parents with the ability to access year-round care helps them maintain jobs and ensure that their children are always cared for in a supervised and trusted setting.
- Many parents work nontraditional schedules and need flexible care for their children after hours and in the summer months. For example, parents may choose center-based care for their children due to ease of access and quality of care; and approximately 1 million paid providers care for children in licensed family child care arrangements, which often appeal to parents because of lower cost, cultural fit, or the home-based setting.24
5. The CCWFA would help address insufficient child care supply and shrink the number of child care deserts
The BASE grants included in the Child Care for Working Families Act would help mitigate the number of child care deserts across the country, addressing supply issues that limit parents’ options and exacerbate wait times for enrollment. These grants can be used to support staff bonuses and benefits, offer professional development, help pay for rent or mortgages, make quality improvements, and increase access to inclusive and developmentally appropriate care for children with disabilities. Moreover, the bill’s Birth through Five Child Care and Early Learning Program supports states’ participation through the creation of a federal-state partnership at 90 percent federal contribution, helping make child care investments more affordable to states.
Child care deserts demand bold solutions
- Half of U.S. families live in communities defined as child care deserts—areas with so few providers or available child care slots that they do not have enough child care capacity to meet families’ needs.25
- In rural parts of the country, the picture is even more dire: Nearly two-thirds of rural families live in a child care desert, spending more and traveling further for their child care arrangements.26
- Inequitable access to child care stalls economic growth, undercuts families’ financial solvency, reinforces inequality, and limits children from accessing enriching early environments that boost their developmental and learning potential.27
Many Americans and political leaders know that additional federal investments in the child care sector are long overdue. The Child Care for Working Families Act is an important piece of legislation that would create a more sustainable system by supporting children, families, communities, child care workers, employers, and the economy.