Children Now Insider: High-Quality Child Care Programs

No family should have to choose between quality and affordability when it comes to care

By Samantha Tran

December 9, 2019

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

For more information on our blog, contact Adrienne Bell at abell@childrennow.org

Editor’s note: after publishing this article we received a note from a reader inquiring about how high-quality family child care homes were a part of the landscape of child care that is provided in California. This article referenced a mixed child care delivery system and focused on the need for additional state investment in high-quality and accessible child care generally, inclusive of both center-based and family child care homes.

High-quality child care that meets the needs of working parents, and sets children on a path to academic and future success is critical to California’s future. However, few low-income families can afford high-quality child care without assistance, and the availability of child care, let alone high-quality child care, across the state is insufficient to meet need.

The cost of child care in America as a whole, and in California specifically, is stunning. According to a recent report from Child Care Aware of America:

  • California is the least-affordable state for center-based infant child care, with families spending approximately 17.6 percent of their annual income on child care;
  • The annual cost of infant child care – an average of $16,542 – exceeds annual in-state tuition fees at a public university; and
  • In California (and 38 other states), the annual cost of center-based child care for two children – an infant and a four-year-old – exceeds average annual mortgage payments.

Across the state, the vast majority of families, especially families with babies, cannot afford high-quality child care on their own. More California women are working than ever before. Over the last fifty years, California mothers’ participation in the labor force has risen from 38 to 66 percent. In addition, women are playing an increasingly important role as breadwinners within households, up from 26 to 55 percent. Yet, women still consistently earn less than men and are more likely to live in poverty, especially black, Native American and Latina women. More than 62 percent of babies are born into low-income households, and an estimated 21 percent of all children are growing up in poverty. Although most families qualify for child care assistance, the state has failed to scale subsidy programs and currently fewer than 14 percent of income-eligible infant and toddlers have access to subsidized child care. As a result, the vast majority of families struggle to find consistent, affordable quality child care that allows them to work.

This struggle is compounded by the fact that because California does not consistently incorporate research-based standards into child care regulations, families do not have equitable access to high-quality programs. As a result, many families, especially low-income families, find what child care they can. No parent should have to choose between quality and affordability when it comes to caring for their child, and yet, this is the precise situation that too many California families find themselves facing.

There are good reasons why California should not only increase access to child care, but also ensure that it is of the highest quality in a variety of settings that meet family needs. Research shows that high-quality child care programs not only provide critical support for parents to work, they also boost children too. Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman found that every dollar spent on high-quality, birth-to-five programs for low-income children delivers a 13 percent annual return on investment. Dr. Heckman analyzed a wide variety of life outcomes, such as health, crime, income, and schooling. In particular, he found that high-quality child care created a two-generation effect on workforce. Kids were better off as adults in the long-term because of gained social and educational capital, and in the short-term maternal education, labor force participation, and parental income increased. Many of the mothers in this data set were single, making employment critical for their upward mobility and child care critical for employment.

In a high cost state like California, ensuring that all income-eligible parents have access to subsidized child care will significantly reduce families’ financial burden and enable parents to work. In fact, findings from a recent Public Policy Institute of California report show that expanding access to full-time care to all low-income children could lower child poverty by up to 24 percent. Additionally, for the success of the next generation, the state should ensure that while parents are at work, children are learning, growing and safe in high-quality child care settings with well-trained, well-supported providers.

While California has taken significant steps in the last few years toward increasing funding for early care and education programs, there is more that needs to be done. In the short-term, policymakers should increase the number of infants and toddlers that receive state-funded child care, while also investing in the infrastructure and workforce development necessary to provide high-quality care in a variety of settings. By ensuring that all California kids, especially those who are most disadvantaged by economic inequality and race-based health and education disparities, received the right kind of help at the right time to promote families’ economic self-sufficiency and children’s lifelong success.

Editor’s Note: This is the final blog post in the Talk the Tot campaign; thank you for following along these past few months! To see all the Talk the Tot content, visit our web page. You can also review Talk the Tot social media posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.