To make progress on early childhood policies, states must build a broad coalition that understands the importance of investing in and prioritizing young children. Early childhood policies have broad bipartisan support, with voters seeing this period of life as providing unique opportunities at the nexus of a range of policy issue areas that have lasting impacts on children’s futures. Policymakers should review the messaging guidance below and highlight the messages that they believe will resonate most strongly with their audiences.
The following talking points use national numbers. To incorporate state-specific numbers, see CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard or the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. It is important to consider that while these estimates are powerful tools, allowing one to capture the scope and impact of various issue areas, significant improvements must be made to the nation’s collective data systems to account for the impacts of systemic racism. Centering racial equity in data collection, policymaking, and community building is critical to supporting children and families across racial, economic, and social spectrums.
Talking points on child care and early learning
Child care is a foundational social, educational, and economic resource for families across the country. A 2021 national survey found that 70 percent of voters say “access to high-quality child care for all infants and toddlers is a high/very high priority,” and 69 percent consider spending on high-quality preschool programs a priority. By December 2022, support had grown: 78 percent of all voters—including 83 percent of suburban mothers, 75 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans—expressed support for expanding child care funding while letting parents choose their providers.
Child care support: By the numbers
Share of voters who support expanding child care funding (2022)
Share of suburban mothers who support expanding child care funding (2022)
Share of independents who support expanding child care funding (2022)
Share of Republicans who support expanding child care funding (2022)
Despite this widespread bipartisan support, however, increased federal spending in the child care sector has been hard won, and legislators have yet to enact a robust national public investment. With a divided 118th Congress, states will need to take the lead on enacting solutions to the child care crisis in order to ensure that they are providing an adequate supply of high-quality options, equitable access for all families, and investments in the workforce—largely made up of women and overwhelmingly women of color—that recognize their invaluable professional and societal contributions.
Child care costs are out of reach for most families
The child care market is “a textbook example of a broken market,” as noted by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Families cannot afford the current price of child care, but child care tuition rarely covers the true cost of providing a high-quality program, which cuts into the supply of available slots and the capacity of child care providers to invest meaningfully in their workforce, nearly half of whom are eligible for some form of public assistance.
Now, with the expiration of pandemic-era relief dollars, and in the absence of robust federal investment, the child care sector faces a new wave of uncertainty that could ultimately limit options for parents and drive up enrollment prices.
- Across nearly every category—whether it be marital status, race, age, education level, or income—families paying for child care spend, on average, a greater share of their income than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services affordability benchmark, which is 7 percent of family income.
- The price of child care outpaces inflation: Since 2000, child care prices have risen 115 percent, exceeding the 74 percent growth in overall inflation. This squeezes parents’ budgets, sometimes edging them—particularly mothers—out of the workforce altogether.
- The average price of licensed child care is more than $10,000 a year, and families with infants and toddlers spend nearly $16,000 per year for child care, on average.
- Across the United States, the average national price of child care comprises 33 percent of the median household income for single-parent families.
- More than half of parents with children under 15 spend at least 20 percent of their household income on child care; and that cost has increased over the past few years, rising by an average of 41 percent since the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In 32 states and the District of Columbia, full-time center-based child care is more expensive than the average annual tuition and fees for a public four-year university.
- The price of tuition for two children in a child care center exceeds the median rent in every state.
Child care can be hard to find, and child care deserts will grow without robust public investment
More than half of the country’s families live in child care deserts, where there is only one licensed child care slot for every three children. This lack of access to care especially affects parents of infants and toddlers and families with disabled children who require special services. Programs for infants and toddlers, in particular, require higher staff ratios to meet safety standards.
Child care deserts also disproportionately affect low-income communities, rural communities, and Hispanic/Latino communities.
- A 2021 study across 35 states and the District of Columbia found that about 12.3 million young children in the United States needed child care that year, but only about 7 million licensed child care slots were available. This meant that there was a gap whereby about 3.6 million children went without options for care—not including school-age children in need of before- or after-school and summer care.
- Child care shortages often cause parents to make career sacrifices and hinder workforce and economic development. One study found that the infant and toddler child care shortage cost the economy $122 billion each year, across costs to parents, employers and businesses, and taxpayers at large. In particular, productivity impacts associated with child care issues cost employers $23 billion annually.
- Child care is particularly difficult to find for families with nontraditional needs, including those families who need care on late nights, on weekends, and during holidays. For parents of children with disabilities, English-language learners, and parents who work late shifts or have unpredictable work schedules, it is especially difficult to find an adequate program.
- As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, between December 2019 and March 2021, more than 8,000 child care centers, as well as almost 7,000 licensed home-based child care providers, closed across 37 states. This represented a 9 percent loss in licensed centers and a 10 percent loss in licensed home-based child care programs.
- As of August 2023, child care employment was still down 39,400 jobs—3.7 percent below February 2020 levels. Loss of staff makes it harder to both satisfy safety ratios, particularly in infant and toddler programs, and offer more slots to families, thus hindering providers’ ability to offer services, driving down supply and limiting parents’ options.
The current system has a disproportionate impact on infants and toddlers, with consequences stretching into schooling and beyond
The earliest periods of life are foundational to supporting the development of the brain architecture that shapes all future learning; how the brain and body react to stressful experiences throughout life; and the emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic abilities that help children become independent and successful adults. Unfortunately, due to inadequate access to high-quality child care options, particularly for infants and toddlers, many young children face disadvantages starting very early in life.
- It is especially hard to find licensed child care for infants and toddlers. A study of nine states and the District of Columbia found more than five infants and toddlers for every slot of licensed child care.
- On average, a family making the state median income would have to spend 18 percent of their income to cover the cost of child care for an infant and 13 percent of their income to cover the cost of care for a toddler.
- On average, the true cost of center-based child care is 61 percent higher for an infant than a preschooler, but subsidy reimbursement rates are only 27 percent higher.
- Infants and toddlers are the age group most likely to be in poverty, with disparities by race and ethnicity, meaning that at the time children are most vulnerable, support is insufficient.
- Parents of infants and toddlers are often at the lowest earning level of their professional lives; in addition to the high cost of care for infants and toddlers, rising housing costs, and other barriers to family economic security, approximately 40 percent of children under age 3 belong to low-income families, with 18 percent living in poverty and 9 percent living in deep poverty.
- Gaps in measures of cognitive performance between lower- and higher-income children emerge at just 9 months of age and continue to grow by the time they reach age 2.
The child care workforce bears the brunt of the insufficient child care assistance system
Current child care subsidy rates—the amount that providers receive for each eligible child served by the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG)—are too low, and many child care centers do not accept subsidies. Low reimbursement rates mean that providers who do accept subsidy-eligible children are not compensated at a level that allows them to provide high-quality care. As of March 2023, just 15 states offered a reimbursement rate at the recommended 75th percentile of the most recent market rate for all combinations of care for children ages 0 to 5.
Meanwhile, the low salaries, lack of benefits, and reliance on public assistance that plague the child care workforce—largely women and disproportionately women of color—lead to economic stress, which has a profound negative impact on early educators’ physical and mental health and often drives many out of the sector. When early educators are worried about paying their bills and feeding their families, it is much harder to focus on the needs of the children in their care. As of September 2023, the child care sector was still more than 39,000 jobs below its February 2020 levels, and it has been recovering at a slower rate than other pandemic-affected industries. Despite elevated numbers of job postings, low wages and challenging working conditions have prolonged the sector’s struggles to recruit and retain staff.
- The CCDBG reaches only 14 percent of eligible families and just 1 in 9 children under age 6. Families with incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL)—$46,060 a year for a family of three—do not qualify for child care assistance in 24 states.
- The child care workforce is more than 95 percent women, 38 percent of whom are women of color. Notably, 17 percent of women of color in the United States are Black women and 16 percent are Hispanic women.
- Typically, child care teachers earn $13.71 per hour, and higher education does not provide a significant benefit: Early education has the lowest lifetime earning potential of all college majors.
- In 2019, Black women and Hispanic women who were child care providers earned 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of what their white counterparts earned.
- More than half of all child care workers are enrolled in at least one public assistance program, and only 40 to 50 percent have access to health insurance through their employers.
- In 2021, a quarter of child care providers reported difficulty affording housing expenses, regardless of whether they rented or owned their homes, with the highest rates of hardship reported among family, friend, and neighbor providers.
- Estimated annual turnover rates in licensed facilities are between 26 and 40 percent, causing instability at a time when children most need consistency and structure.
- In May 2022, the average child care worker earned just $29,570 per year—only about $2,000 more than the FPL for a family of four in 2022 and less than the FPL for a family of four in 2023 income dollars. Research shows that the interaction between children and caregivers is one of the most important indicators of quality care, but poverty wages can undermine early childhood workers’ effectiveness in the classroom.
Investing in high-quality early learning programs grows the economy
Access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education helps parents—especially mothers—enter and stay in the workforce and helps employers attract and retain talented, productive workers. Across U.S. states, the annual economic losses in productivity and tax revenue due to child care issues range from $500 million to $3.5 billion. In 2023, the nation’s economy was estimated to lose nearly $122 billion annually in wages, productivity, and tax revenue solely due to families’ challenges securing infant and toddler care; this is more than double the estimated losses just five years earlier, in 2018.
- The early childhood education industry positively affects state economies, providing millions of dollars in additional earnings due to spillover impacts from revenue and increased employment. The Committee for Economic Development’s 2019 update to its “Child Care in State Economies” report details the state-specific economic impacts of child care.
- In 2022, 68 percent of women with children under age 6 participated in the labor force, compared with 77 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 17. Among employed mothers, those with older children were more likely than those with younger children to be employed full time—82 percent versus 78 percent.
- In 2021, Black mothers had a slightly higher labor force participation rate than women in general—75 percent among Black women with children under age 6 and 81 percent among Black women with children ages 6 to 17. In contrast, men with children under age 6 were more likely to be employed (94 percent) than those whose youngest child was between the ages of 6 and 17 (92 percent) and much more likely to be employed than women with children.
- The District of Columbia’s implementation of universal preschool in 2008 caused a 10 percentage point increase in maternal labor force participation.
- Nearly 2 million parents of children ages 5 and under report quitting a job, not taking a job, or greatly changing a job because of problems with child care. Mothers who were unable to find a child care program were significantly less likely to be employed than those who did find a program. They also reported that if they had access to more affordable and reliable child care, they would take steps to improve their earnings and advance their careers.
Tell a story and use data to make a case
The significant underinvestment in children and families means that there is a large gap to fill. But while the cost may be large, the data support that child care is a smart and worthy investment. When making the case for these investments, it is important to let the data and research make the case, rather than lead with a big number.
Building a story for child care investments could look like this:
- Children, families, and economies benefit from access to high-quality child care programs.
- High-quality programs, therefore, must offer high-quality jobs that attract well-trained and highly skilled teachers who have the time and resources to maximize every interaction.
- To recruit and retain these teachers, employers must offer better compensation, family-sustaining benefits, empowerment and representation, job security, and better working conditions.
- Yet these costs can amount to $[XX], and current revenue streams are insufficient.
- In light of this, additional public investment is needed to achieve a comprehensive early care and learning sector and all the benefits that come with it.
The following resources from the FrameWorks Institute may also be useful in developing a story to support child care investments:
Use local data when possible
The numbers behind the stories families and providers are telling demonstrate that child care challenges are widespread and that structural policy change is needed to address them. Specific data can highlight the issues and areas where solutions are most urgently needed and help prioritize energy and funding. Having up-to-date and locally tailored data lends credibility to the results, with numbers that are more tangibly relevant to the child care struggles that many families are experiencing.
In addition to the child care and early learning data dashboard, CAP has developed several interactives that provide state and/or local data:
Develop a communications strategy using earned media
In order to reach a broad audience, policymakers should write about their personal experiences and support for child care. They can do so through “earned media,” or media published by another source, including:
- Press releases from the policymaker’s office to respond to new reports, research, or current events involving the limited access to and high costs of child care and preschool for working families
- Op-eds and blogs, which are a powerful source for expressing views on the need to put affordable, high-quality child care within reach for families (see a sample op-ed below)
Sample op-ed in support of investments in child care and early learning
Right now, millions of Americans are facing a crisis: High-quality child care is out of reach for working families. Early childhood education prepares children for school, gives families a fair shot to make ends meet and get ahead, and strengthens our economy. A strong economy starts with strong families. But low supply and skyrocketing costs are putting child care out of reach for millions of hard-working [state residents], leaving families struggling to choose between their paychecks and their children’s care.
[Insert a few sentences with a story, if you have one, about how the high cost of and lack of access to child care affects your district/state or a personal story about how it has affected you.]
Affordable, high-quality child care strengthens our economy today and tomorrow—when families can access it. Currently, the cost is too high, and the supply of high-quality care is too low. In 34 states and the District of Columbia, full-time center-based child care costs more than the average annual tuition and fees to attend a public four-year university, and the price of tuition for two children in a child care center exceeds the median rent in every state. [Insert state specific costs from CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard.] To make matters worse, only 10 percent of child care programs in the United States are considered high quality.
The simple truth is that access to quality child care is a game-changer for children, affecting the entirety of their lives. Children are our nation’s future innovators and workers, and high-quality child care helps lay the developmental foundation for preschool, elementary school, and beyond. In fact, differences in children’s cognitive abilities by income are evident at only 9 months old and significantly widen by age 2.
But child care isn’t just about kids. Current child care options are financially squeezing working families, who need access to affordable care to make ends meet. Sixty-seven percent of American children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce, which means that parents, especially working mothers, are often left to make an impossible choice between accepting low-quality care so that they can maintain their jobs and forgoing needed pay to stay at home and care for their children themselves.
Access to high-quality child care ensures that parents can stay in the workforce, which allows employers to retain talented, productive workers who contribute to the economy. High-quality care also improves child outcomes, which means less spending on child welfare services, special education, and the criminal justice system in the future. Early childhood education not only levels the playing field for children as they begin kindergarten but also builds a workforce that will drive future economic growth, secures long-term economic competitiveness, and develops our nation’s future leaders.
Share personal experiences
Offering personal stories about how you, your family, and/or your friends have struggled to access affordable, high-quality early care and education is an important tool to effectively advocate for child care investments. Consider sharing stories that touch on child care and preschool struggles:
- Have you or someone you know faced barriers to accessing affordable, high-quality child care?
- Did you or someone you know take time out of the workforce or leave the workforce entirely to care for children because of the high cost of child care?
- Have you or someone you know struggled with the cost of child care?
- Have you or someone you know struggled with finding a provider who could offer services to a child with a disability?
- Have you or someone you know had to consider relocating to a new community or state that is not a child care desert?
Visit a child care center or meet with a family child care provider
Sample social media posts
Leverage social media by using CAP’s child care and early learning data dashboard to share why child care is important for specific states. Below are some examples:
- [XX] percent of children under 6 in [state] have both parents in the workforce. We must ensure that they all have access to high-quality & affordable care.
- Every year, [XX] parents in [state] make career sacrifices due to child care issues. Ensuring #ChildCareForAll is important for the well-being of families & our economy.
- [XX] percent of people in [state] live in child care deserts, meaning child care is hard to find & often unavailable #SolveChildCare
- Annual costs for center-based care in [state] average $[XX,XXX] for infants & preschoolers. That’s not affordable for far too many families.
- Average child care costs take up [XX] percent of [state]’s median income. We need to make child care affordable for all #SolveChildCare
- The average child care worker in [state] makes only $[XX.XX]/hour. It’s time to raise wages for the dedicated workers taking care of our children.
- An additional [XX] children in [state] would be served by expanding child care subsidies to all low- & middle-income families #ChildCareForAll #SolveChildCare
- Making child care affordable for all would benefit the [state] economy by an estimated $[XX]/year #ChildCareForAll #SolveChildCare
The authors would like to thank Allie Schneider and Erin Grant for their extensive review and fact-checking, as well as Emma Lofgren, Rose Khattar, Lily Roberts, Jean Ross, Karla Walter, Maggie Jo Buchanan, Sara Estep, Molly Weston Williamson, and Jared Bass for their review and feedback.
For more information on any of the topics outlined in this toolkit, please contact email@example.com.