There’s a big movement for cutting costs of college tuition in the US, but much less attention is paid to early care and education. In this opinion piece, Dr Taryn Morrissey calls for greater investment in the early years, and explains how it can be made more affordable. Morrissey is Associate Professor of Public Policy at American University, and co-author of Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality.
Amid the continually rising cost of tuition, the idea of free college has received growing attention over the past few years. For instance, from 2014 to 2017, 35 states took up 80 bills related to free college.
Early care and education have also received attention, but could be given more, especially when you consider how childcare for infants costs more than tuition at four-year public colleges in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Similarly, childcare for four-year-olds costs more than public college tuition in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
The reality is that childcare in America is expensive and out of reach for many families. Whether centre-based or family childcare, the average cost of childcare nationally exceeds $8,600 per year.
By comparison, that is more than double the estimated average net tuition and fee price of $4,140 paid by full-time in-state students at public four-year institutions in the 2017-18 academic year.
There are other good reasons why childcare affordability should get just as much attention as college affordability, if not more. For starters, families typically use childcare for five years per child – a year longer than earning a bachelor’s degree is supposed to take.
A matter of timing
Further, childcare lacks the financing options, such as loans and grants, that many families use for college costs – and this is despite the fact that parents don’t have years to save for childcare like they do for college. Additionally, childcare costs are typically highest during families’ lowest earning years.
For low-income families, public early care and education programs provide limited benefits, but the system is underfunded. For example, only 40% of four-year-olds from poor families attend Head Start and only 4% of infants and toddlers from poor families attend Early Head Start. In 2012, only 25% of eligible children received childcare subsidies. In 2016, 20 states had waiting lists or frozen intake for childcare assistance, and many low-income families remain confused about eligibility requirements and the application process.
“Unequal access to high-quality childcare is exacerbating social and economic inequality”
The federal child and dependent care tax credit – which allows parents to deduct eligible childcare costs from their taxes – is capped at $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children, and is not refundable, meaning it does not benefit the lowest-income families that don’t earn enough to owe taxes. In 2015, the average credit was $565 – a drop in the bucket compared to childcare expenses.
Over the last decade, several states and cities like New York City, the District of Columbia and San Antonio have created public preschool programs that serve children from low- and higher-income families. Georgia and Oklahoma were the pioneers on this front, beginning their universal prekindergarten programs in the 1990s. Also in recent years, five states and the District of Columbia passed laws to create paid family leave programs. Both universal preschool and paid family leave programs are important for promoting children’s development. But what warrants much greater investment and policy attention is the gap between age 8 weeks – when parental leave ends – and ages 3 or 4, when preschool begins.
Learning gaps start early
High-quality care during the infant and toddler years is particularly important when you consider the research that shows the most rapid period of learning and brain development takes place during the first three years of life. There is growing evidence that the gaps in test scores between children from low-income and high-income families begin well before students enter kindergarten.
One likely contributor to these achievement gaps is the gap in centre care and preschool attendance between children from low- and higher-income families. For instance, in 2005, 22% of one-year-olds from families with moderate incomes attended centre-based care, compared to just 11% of one-year-olds from low-income families, federal statistics show.
Decades of research show the many benefits of high-quality early care and education. Right now, unequal access to high-quality childcare is exacerbating social and economic inequality. Speaking as a researcher in the field of childcare for more than a decade, I believe that access to high-quality early learning opportunities needs to be expanded to narrow achievement gaps.
Labour costs and salaries
So how is it that it costs more to drop your baby or toddler off at day care than it does for your young adult child to attend college?
It’s not that childcare teachers are paid generously. The median hourly wage for childcare workers was only $10.18 in 2016 – less than the median hourly wage of $10.45 for parking lot attendants. Many earn salaries so low they are eligible for or receive public assistance.
“Many ordinary business principles simply do not apply in the world of childcare”
But it is still the cost of teachers that makes childcare cost more than college. The majority of childcare expenses cover labour costs. That’s because childcare teachers – for numerous health, safety and developmental reasons – are only permitted to be responsible for small groups of children. The allowable child-to-teacher ratios vary from state to state. For example, Early Head Start programs require ratios of four infants to one caregiver and cap class sizes at eight children.
Greater investments needed
So what can be done to both improve the quality and increase the affordability of childcare? My co-authored book, “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality,” provides a comprehensive plan for doing so. The book recommends a mix of paid parental leave, enhanced childcare subsidies, universal preschool and a reimagined Head Start to begin at or before birth.
At a minimum, I believe there should be greater investment in the early years, particularly in expanding the childcare subsidy system to serve more children and families and to pay childcare providers amounts that reflect the price of high-quality care. The additional $2.9 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program included in the recent budget deal is a great first step, and could serve an estimated 230,000 additional children in 2018.
States should use these funds to support childcare for infants and toddlers, the group for whom care is most expensive and hardest to find. States could also use funds to help train and retain high-quality teachers, including providing compensation that matches their educational qualifications.
But this is just a down payment in what needs to be a sustained, substantial effort. Parents and their employers lose out when kids attend low-quality, unreliable childcare. When childcare breaks down, parents can’t work. A recent report from Louisiana estimates that the state’s economy loses $1.1 billion a year due to childcare issues.
Policymakers increasingly recognize the need for more affordable childcare. For example, Sen. Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced this past fall, would ensure that all low-income families and many, if not most middle-class families, would pay no more than 7% of their income on childcare.
As elected officials debate potential investments in infrastructure, childcare should be seen as an essential part of the equation. Just like transportation, workers need childcare to get to work. Employers and the public have vested interests in ensuring that the workers and taxpayers of tomorrow receive high-quality early care and education today.
(Picture credit: US Department of Education)