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The Importance of Early Childhood Programs for Women on the Brink

The Importance of Early Childhood Programs for Women on the Brink

7 Things the Federal Government Can Do to Improve Them

Access to high-quality, affordable early childhood programs are rare for women living on the brink, but there are steps the federal government can take to improve access. The recent documentary, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” highlights how these early childhood programs can support women in low-wage jobs.

Most families who live paycheck to paycheck do not have access to high-quality, affordable child care and are forced to choose between using low-quality child care that is affordable and leaving the paid workforce. (AP/Denis Farrell)
Most families who live paycheck to paycheck do not have access to high-quality, affordable child care and are forced to choose between using low-quality child care that is affordable and leaving the paid workforce. (AP/Denis Farrell)

“Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” a recent, Maria Shriver-produced documentary from HBO, portrays a single mother with three children trying to survive on a low-wage salary. During the film, we see Katrina Gilbert struggle to afford housing, food, and health care despite working full time as a Certified Nursing Assistant. What we do not see is Gilbert scrambling to find affordable child care and early learning opportunities for her three young children. That is because her children attend the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which provides low-cost, high-quality early childhood programs for families in poverty and those on the brink of it. Gilbert’s story highlights the importance of access to high-quality, affordable early childhood programs for low-income working families. Unfortunately, many families in similar situations are not so fortunate and struggle to piece together child care, forcing them to make difficult choices along the way.

About the Chambliss Center for Children

Phil Acord is the CEO of the Chambliss Center for Children. He recently spoke with the Center for American Progress about the program featured in “Paycheck to Paycheck.” The Chambliss Center’s goal is to provide access to high-quality, affordable child care that supports the needs of working parents by making child care available at all times and serving all age groups. The center serves more than 300 children directly and provides technical assistance and management support to 13 other child care programs that collectively serve an additional 300 children. Currently, 230 children are on the waiting list.

As we see in the film, the center provides 24-hour child care services for families on a sliding scale, meaning that families that earn less pay less for child care. The average child care center in Tennessee charges almost $6,000 for an infant, $4,500 for a 4-year-old, and $2,500 for a school-age child on an annual basis. Given these rates, we would expect Gilbert to pay almost $12,000 in child care fees each year, and she would have paid even more a few years ago, when her youngest child was an infant. Instead, she pays about one-quarter of that amount.

According to Acord, the Chambliss Center also partners with other community organizations to provide access to the federal Head Start program and the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program. Both programs are offered at no cost to families. The Head Start program is a federal-to-local program that provides high-quality early learning for children, as well as services such as nutritious meals, access to social services, and developmental screenings and referrals to health care providers. The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program is a state initiative available to children from low-income families and those with other risk factors, and its goal is to prepare children for success in school. The Head Start and preschool program operate four hours and five-and-a-half hours per day, respectively. The Chambliss Center provides an extended child care program in the same classroom to cover a full working day. Without these additional hours, parents such as Gilbert would not be able to access valuable early learning programs because of their work schedules.

The Chambliss Center does all of this while maintaining high-quality standards in the child care program. The Tennessee Department of Human Services rates child care programs based on staff qualifications, health and safety standards, and on-site observations. Acord says that the Chambliss Center has been rated in the highest category. Maintaining high-quality standards is not easy, however, as ensuring small class sizes and staff training is expensive.

The Chambliss Center is supported in part by federal funds, including the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG—which subsidizes child care expenses for low-income working families—and the Head Start program described above. Unfortunately, resources for both programs have declined recently, putting pressure on programs such as those provided by the Chambliss Center.

Last year, the Head Start program was hit particularly hard by sequestration, across-the-board cuts to all federal programs that went into effect after Congress was unable to reach a budget agreement. As a result, a program that is affiliated with the Chambliss Center had to cut 50 children from Head Start. It closed a center and lost the building where it was housed. Even though Congress has since restored funding for the Head Start program, that building is gone. The Chattanooga community is in the process of determining how to re-open the Head Start program, but the ebb and flow of federal funds creates difficulty.

Funding for CCDBG has also dwindled. The Chambliss Center used to receive about $600,000 per year from CCDBG, and that number is now around $240,000. Fewer children are receiving child care subsidies: According to Acord, Tennessee no longer provides child care assistance to working poor families such as the Gilberts because funding has declined. Many of these families may be forced to turn to more informal child care arrangements. About 30 percent of children who attend the Chambliss Center used to have a child care subsidy, and now only about 15 percent have assistance.

To make up the difference, Acord and his staff have put considerable effort into fundraising. They have worked to raise more than $600,000 in private donations and have an endowment that generates about $180,000 per year. Support from the United Way and local funding round out the budget. Parents pay, on average, 20 percent to 25 percent of the cost of child care.

Even with the reduced prices for parents, the child care fees constitute a large portion of parents’ take-home pay. Acord estimates that Gilbert puts about one-third of her income toward child care. To make up for reduced federal resources, the Chambliss Center’s board recently considered increasing fees for parents but voted down the measure. Board members fear that even a small increase will mean losing families who cannot afford to pay. Increasingly, families in the Chattanooga community are unable to afford child care centers and are turning to relatives or lower-quality arrangements for care. The staff and board at Chambliss do not want this to happen to their families.

The current child care and early education landscape in the United States

Unfortunately, places such as the Chambliss Center are all too rare in this country. Most families who live paycheck to paycheck do not have access to high-quality, affordable child care like Gilbert does. As a result, many families are forced to choose between using low-quality child care that is affordable and leaving the paid workforce. The typical low-wage job simply does not pay enough to provide access to high-quality child care.

CCDBG subsidizes child care for only about one-quarter of eligible families, and approximately 260,000 children have lost access to child care assistance since 2006. Even when families can receive child care subsidies, the rates are often too low to allow access to many high-quality options. The value of the child care subsidy has declined over time, and some states have implemented policies, such as not reimbursing providers for absences or paying by the hour, that reduce the value of the subsidy and curb the number of high-quality providers who can afford to accept subsidies.

Policies that promote access to high-quality, affordable child care programs

We need to make programs such as those provided by the Chambliss Center the norm for young children in families who live on the brink of poverty. To that end, there are several changes we can make at the federal level to promote access to high-quality child care and early learning programs for families living in poverty or on the brink of it. Here are seven ways the federal government can improve access to high-quality early childhood programs right now:

1. Pass and fund the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. Pending legislation in Congress would authorize a federal program to support states that expand access to high-quality preschool. This would mean that programs such as those provided by the Chambliss Center could receive funding to expand preschool programs. Access to preschool programs defrays costs for parents and ensures that children have access to early learning programs, especially when they are embedded in extended child care programs.

2. Increase funding for the CCDBG and Head Start. Current CCDBG funding levels are insufficient to reach low-income working parents, and the reimbursement rates are too low to allow access to most high-quality child care programs. While Gilbert is able to afford child care because the Chambliss Center subsidizes the cost, millions of others cannot find affordable care, and most people who qualify for child care subsidies cannot get them due to limited funding for the program. Likewise, an increase in Head Start is needed to reach more children. Additional funding for Head Start would allow programs such as those the Chambliss Center supports to expand access to more families. Head Start also provides much more funding on a per-child basis than the child care subsidy system. Early childhood programs often take a loss when they receive child care subsidies and rely on Head Start to sustain a quality program.

3. Set eligibility for CCDBG at 12 months. Families are often eligible for child care assistance for a few months at a time, whereas Head Start and preschool programs typically deem children eligible for the entire school year. When families churn in and out of the child care subsidy system, it makes it extremely difficult to operate high-quality early childhood programs. For example, Acord has to plan and budget for the entire year and into the future. Staff salaries, training, supplies, and utilities are constants when it comes to managing and maintaining a high-quality program, and these expenses remain after the child care subsidy disappears. Pending legislation in Congress would require children to be eligible for CCDBG for 12 months at a time, which would substantially improve the program for children, families, and providers if states implement this correctly and do not remove a subsidy prior to the eligibility period.

4. Require states to contract directly with high-quality early childhood providers. Instead of providing vouchers to families, CCDBG could provide funds directly to high-quality early learning programs through a grant or contract. This means that, in effect, the state buys slots in high-quality programs that will be filled by eligible children. This ensures that programs have funds upfront to operate, and it also builds the supply of high-quality child care for families. The federal government should require states to distribute a substantial portion of CCDBG funds through grants and contracts.

5. Require states to allow families to remain on the program after small pay increases. At the end of “Paycheck to Paycheck,” we learn that Gilbert has received a raise of $0.14 per hour after two years with her employer. While this small raise does not even begin to keep pace with the rising cost of living, sometimes these small wage increases can make a family ineligible for child care assistance and other public benefits. This is particularly problematic for families who lose child care assistance as a result of a small wage increase, since it can often mean that they lose access to child care altogether and cannot afford to work. That is why it is important that child care assistance and other benefits decline gradually rather than cut off abruptly. In the child care subsidy system, that means gradually increasing the parent’s copayment as their wage increases but allowing them to continue to receive a subsidy.

6. Require states to allow families to participate in child care when they are searching for a job. Many low-wage workers face periods of unemployment, particularly in tough economic times. In some states, parents cannot receive child care assistance while they search for a job. It is virtually impossible to conduct a job search and interview without access to child care. When families lose a job and child care at the same time, it only prolongs unemployment. Child care subsidies need to provide support to low-income families while parents look for jobs to help them become employed and reduce the length of their unemployment.

7. Amend the Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP, to provide additional meals. CACFP currently reimburses child care programs for nutritious meals served to children. These meals are critical for children who live in families with food insecurity. However, CACFP currently only reimburses centers for two meals and a snack each day; programs such as the Chambliss Center operate 24 hours per day and serve three meals and two snacks each day. Increasingly, parents living on the brink are working nontraditional hours, and in order for programs to operate, child care policies need to be in line with this reality.


In “Paycheck to Paycheck,” we learn that there are 42 million women living on the brink of poverty; these women are raising 28 million children, but only a handful of them are fortunate enough to have access to high-quality, affordable child care and early learning programs. The rest are left with an inadequate and underfunded array of programs that do not reach a majority of eligible families. It is time to change that and give women like Gilbert a fighting chance.

Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Katie Hamm

Vice President, Early Childhood Policy