The past decade has seen a significant increase in attention on the United States’ ongoing child care crisis. Families with young children have long been subject to the insufficiency of the nation’s fragile child care system, and they continue to face barriers to finding, accessing, and affording high-quality care options. Despite the vital nature of child care work, early educators—who are disproportionately women of color—receive few benefits and low to poverty wages and often rely on additional jobs or public assistance programs to make ends meet, which contributes to high turnover rates and retention issues.1 Yet only in recent years has child care received broad national attention as a key policy priority.2 Although child care was gradually building traction in the national consciousness prior to 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue into stark focus and highlighted its critical importance, not only for families with young children but also for the broader U.S. economy.3
The time is long overdue for Congress to commit to the long-term investments necessary to foster a child care infrastructure that meets the needs of all families and supports the critical work of early childhood educators.
Although policymakers have made numerous attempts to address the child care crisis through federal legislation, historic underinvestment and the impending expiration of pandemic-era relief funding have resulted in a child care system that is rapidly approaching a funding cliff and does not adequately serve anyone it should. The time is long overdue for Congress to commit to the long-term investments necessary to foster a child care infrastructure that meets the needs of all families and supports the critical work of early childhood educators.
The interactive timeline below tracks the history of federal child care bills over the past decade, summarizing key trends from the 113th to the 118th Congress.
Recent executive branch actions on child care
The Biden-Harris administration has demonstrated a sustained commitment to expanding child care access and affordability and to supporting the child care workforce. Recent actions include:
- In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced the American Families Plan, which included a $200 billion investment in free universal preschool and a $225 billion investment to make high-quality child care more affordable and support the child care workforce.4
- In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Commerce released guidelines for semiconductor manufacturing companies requesting federal grants through the CHIPS and Science Act. Companies seeking $150 million or more would be required to include plans detailing how high-quality child care will be reliable, accessible, and affordable for their employees and construction workers.5
- In March 2023, the president released his budget for the fiscal year 2024, which included significant commitments to affordable, high-quality child care and early learning.6
- On April 18, 2023, President Biden signed into effect a historic executive order focused on improving access to affordable, high-quality child and long-term care and on supporting care workers by increasing compensation and benefits.7
Overview of key trends from the 113th to the 118th Congress
The authors identified 200 pieces of child care legislation introduced from the 113th to the 118th Congress, including reintroductions and companion bills that were introduced in both the House and the Senate. By only counting companion bills once, the authors found that 154 unique child care bills were introduced during this time period, including reintroductions; excluding reintroductions, the authors found 123 entirely unique bills.
How this analysis categorizes bills
The authors categorized each bill based on priority area, target population, and party designation. Although the authors labeled most bills with a single priority area based on their stated purpose, some bills addressed multiple priorities at once and were labeled as such. (see Methodology)
The authors used the following labels and definitions to capture each bill’s priority area:
- Workforce development: These bills address the child care workforce and the supply of child care educators through compensation, training, or other supportive services.
- Infrastructure and safety: These bills address physical child care facilities and infrastructure, including grants to build new child care facilities. They may include alteration of safety measures, safety plans, or public health protections.
- Learning supports: These bills introduce efforts to address literacy, STEM education, social-emotional learning, or other inclusive forms of care and education, including through funding to support educator training or other professional development. This may include parent education and engagement programs as well as home visiting.
- Access: These bills address the overall supply of child care, reduce the cost of care for families, and improve access to and/or the equity of programs for populations including, but not limited to, Tribal communities, student parents, military families, low-income families, and rural families.
- Data, reporting, and communications: These bills address communication between child care providers, networks, and families through technology and resources. They may modify state and/or provider requirements surrounding data collection and reporting.
The authors also labeled bills based on intended target populations, including: 1) military families and veterans, 2) working families, 3) low-income families, 4) universal programs, 5) Tribal populations, 6) infants and toddlers, 7) child care workers, 8) student parents, 9) states and local education agencies, 10) child care centers and providers, and 11) children and families of children with disabilities.
Finally, the authors coded the bills based on the political party of their sponsors and co-sponsors. Bills were labeled as “Democrat-only” if their list of sponsors and co-sponsors included exclusively Democrats; as “Republican-only” if their list of sponsors and co-sponsors included exclusively Republicans; and as “bipartisan” if their list of sponsors and co-sponsors included members of Congress from more than one party.
Overall, the authors found an increase in the quantity of child care-related bills introduced over time, apart from a noticeable drop during the 115th Congress, from 2017 to 2019, when there was a Republican trifecta in the House, Senate, and Oval Office. (see Figure 1) The authors also found an increase in the number of Republican-only and bipartisan bills over time, especially during and after the 116th Congress, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent the child care system into near-collapse and the issue gained mainstream national attention. In the first four months of the 118th Congress, 23 child care-related bills have been introduced, 10 of which are Democrat-only, five of which are Republican-only, and the remaining eight of which are bipartisan.
Despite this demonstrated increase in federal child care legislation, however, only a handful of bills have made progress beyond their introduction. Over this past decade, only six of these bills were signed into law, and an additional eight passed one chamber. The figure below visually displays the number, political party, and priority area of proposed child care legislation over time.
Figure 3 shows, unsurprisingly, an increased focus on infrastructure and safety during the pandemic. The 116th and the 117th Congress saw an increase in the overall number of bills focused on protecting the health and safety of children and workers in child care settings, as well as some Republican-only bills that proposed rejecting mask and vaccine mandates. Across all Congresses, expanding access to high-quality care has been a significant priority; there has also been a steady rise in focus on workforce development over time. While only a small number of considered bills were related to data, reporting, and communications, consistent legislation has been proposed on these issues in the past three Congresses.
The interactive timeline below highlights the increase in congressional attention on child care over time, reflecting that child care is a worsening problem for families across the country. However, the fight for comprehensive child care is not new; the present child care crisis is a result of a long history of underinvestment and harmful narratives that frame child care as a private responsibility of the home that should not receive public investment. In today’s economic reality, child care is a necessity that has been treated as a luxury: Nearly 67 percent of children under the age of 6 have all available parents in the workforce,8 and approximately 59 percent of children under the age of 5 attend some form of child care outside the home.9 Despite continued efforts from members of Congress to enact legislation that would address these issues, few bills have received enough support to move beyond their introduction.
In today’s economic reality, child care is a necessity that has been treated as a luxury.
The Biden-Harris administration has, so far, demonstrated a strong commitment to solving the nation’s child care crisis, proposing record investments in child care to support families, workers, and the economy. However, bipartisan support will be necessary to secure critical, long-term investments during the current Congress. The analysis in this issue brief reveals a promising increase in the introduction of bipartisan child care bills over the past decade, but it is unclear whether this support will be enough to gain a bipartisan consensus. With momentum growing and pressure mounting across the country to address inaccessible and unaffordable child care, Congress must pass legislation to support comprehensive, federally funded child care infrastructure that meets the needs of all children, families, communities, and workers.
The timeline below displays all child care-related bills introduced from the 113th to the 118th Congress and can be used to filter bills by partisanship and priority area. It also provides an overview of the social, economic, and political context of each Congress.
The authors would like to thank Mat Brady and the CAP Art team for their diligent work on this project.
All bills included in this analysis were sourced from Congress.gov between March 2023 and May 10, 2023, and cover legislation introduced from the 113th through the 118th Congress. The timeline starts at the 113th Congress because it included the first major reauthorization of the CCDBG, a key federal child care program that currently serves about 1.5 million children. The authors searched through bills from each Congress and recorded all bills related to child care and early learning in a tracking document. In an effort to reflect a comprehensive picture of the early care landscape and the role that wraparound services play in access to high-quality learning experiences, the authors opted to include bills focused on early childhood parent engagement and home visiting services. Some bills that appear in the timeline harm access to, decrease funding for, or subvert safety measures for children in child care settings, but the authors included them in order to give a full picture of proposed child care legislation across this time period. Inclusion of bills does not represent support or endorsement from the Center for American Progress.