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Why Not Fix Early Child Care?

Blogging Our Great Divide
March 09, 2017

by Josh Hoxie

A new book offers serious solutions to the deep divide in access to affordable early child care and education.

The patchwork of programs currently in place to help parents balance raising children and making a living has been utterly inadequate for quite some time. Failing to fix this problem will rob still another generation of children — and parents — of the tools they needed to live happy and productive lives.

Researchers at the Russell Sage Foundation are taking this crisis head on. In Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality, Ajay Chaudry and his co-authors explore the crisis and offer up innovative solutions.

Every kid needs high-quality preschool, but many children in the United States go without.

The book begins with a relatable story: Benji’s parents are trying to get their three-year-old son into a Head Start early education program in the Seattle suburbs. With both parents working full-time, the family earns a combined income of about $70,000. That’s not enough to cover their basic living costs with preschool, but too much to qualify for entry into the federally subsidized Head Start program.

Benji is stuck in between, unable to access the educational programs that will help him succeed in life. He’s fortunate to have his grandmother care for him while his parents are at work, but she’s rising in age. She may need care herself someday soon and won’t be able to care for him for free for long.

Tens of thousands of families share this same dilemma. High-quality child care and preschool lay the foundation for a life of learning and future financial security. Yet stark inequalities determine who gets these basic necessities.

Families with incomes below $50,000 a year spend 22 percent of their income on childcare, double the proportion other families spend. And too often the care low-income families can afford turns out to be unstable, low quality, and even detrimental.

Just 5 percent of low-wage workers currently have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chaudry and his colleagues have a straightforward solution: All children need parents at home when they’re young, family support when they’re growing, and affordable high-quality child care and pre-school. What would it take to make that happen?[pullquote] Working class families spend twice as much of their income on child care.[/pullquote]

The plan Chaudry and his colleagues put forward would expand federal childcare programs dramatically and ensure that no family pays more than 10 percent of its income on child care. The plan would include a tax credit to support the wide array of existing paid care arrangements and guarantee 12 to 16 weeks of paid family leave at birth or adoption for both parents.

The program could be run through the existing Social Security system.

The United States lags behind other developed nations in policies supporting children and parents, one prime reason childhood poverty runs so high in the United States despite our immense national wealth.

The reform plan detailed here has, unfortunately, little chance of advancing in the current federal legislative environment. But environments can change. For the sake of our children, we need to make that change happen.

Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits

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