The framework of the Build Back Better Act includes game-changing investments in child care and prekindergarten that will give families the freedom to make a good living and have great care and early education for their children. This will be the most transformative investment in children and early education in generations.

The pandemic tore the invisibility cloak off of the crisis that families have faced for decades, and then made it worse: high prices of child care and early learning with no support to pay them; more than half of families living in child care deserts without safe, nurturing, affordable options; and early educators being paid $13.50 an hour on average despite their essential and complex work. Build Back Better’s provisions could lower child care costs for nine out of ten families with young children in the United States while improving the quality of the early education they receive, raising wages and covering the costs associated with higher quality care. Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds will finally be available, and parents will have the choice to find the right program for their family in center-based, home-based, family-based, school-based, and Head Start programs.

Immediately after these policies are implemented, the families hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic crisis will begin to feel the effects with free or reduced cost child care, while the new funding will help build up the child care and early learning sector to meet families’ needs across the nation. The more than 1 million moms still out of the workforce will begin to return to work, and others will be able to increase their hours and earnings.

These investments will have an even larger effect on the women who have long borne the brunt of the responsibility for care. Black, Latinx, and immigrant women have been on the front lines of care and the pandemic, and are too often underpaid and unable to spend time with their own families. These policies will turn around these pernicious trends for women of color and ensure that women’s workforce participation—currently at its lowest since 1988—recovers quickly.

Finally, these investments will support the healthy development of young children in the United States, whose generation represents the country’s most diverse yet. The progressive structure of the copayment scale and the prioritization of underserved communities will ensure that those who have been historically marginalized receive the most support.

header image: Children and teachers from the SPACES in Action event at KU Kids Deanwood Childcare Center complete a mural in celebration of the launch of the Child Tax Credit at the KU Kids Deanwood Childcare Center in Washington, DC. source: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Community Change

How Will It Work?

The program builds on federal–state partnerships, setting federal parameters while providing states with funding and flexibility to build the early childhood education system that families have long needed. In the first three years, the program will be 100 percent supported by the federal government during the phase-in period. States will be able to immediately serve more children, while also developing plans with stakeholder feedback to reach all eligible families and build the supply needed so that families can access early care and education when and where they need it. Those three years will also include recruiting, training, and improving working conditions for early educators and staff.

Reaching Millions of Families

In the fourth year, full eligibility begins. Like with K–12 education, every family with a 3- or 4-year old will be eligible for prekindergarten. Nine out of ten families are expected to be covered by the child care program. To be eligible, parents with a child under age 6 must have income up to two and a half times the state median income and be engaged in a wide variety of activities, including work, job search, education, or addressing health or care needs. They will be eligible for child care assistance on a sliding scale basis. Those with income of less than 75 percent of state median income will receive free care, and no eligible parent will be charged more than seven percent of their family income. Most 3- and 4-year olds will be able to use preschool during the school day and school year and child care for after school and summers.

table 1
Copayment Sliding Scale: No Eligible Family Pays More Than 7 Percent of Income
State Median Income Range Copayment as a Share of Income
Under 75 percent 0 percent of income
75-100 percent >0 percent but <2 percent of income
100 percent–125 percent >2 percent but <4 percent of income
125 percent–150 percent >4 percent but <7 percent of income
150 percent–250 percent 7 percent of income
Source: House Rules Committee Print 117-17 Text of HR 5375, Build Back Better Act

Wealthier families with income above 250 percent state median income are already likely paying less than 7 percent of their income for child care. They are not included, but are still eligible for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC), which, in 2022,1 will provide up to a $600 tax credit for one child and $1,200 for more than one child,2 as well as for the Dependent Care Assistance Program (often known as Flexible Spending Accounts for Dependent Care).

Building a Supply of High Quality Options

While 51 percent of American families with young children live in a child care desert (a census tract where there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots), two-thirds live in infant and toddler child care deserts. The Center for American Progress (CAP) found that “licensed child care is more than three times as scarce for children ages 0 to 2 than it is for those ages 3 to 5.” Ensuring that every eligible family has access to care that meets their needs is a big task. The new funding from the child care provisions will support states to build the supply of child care in diverse settings that families need. The three year phase-in builds the program and increases supply, including by dedicating significant funding to supply and quality building activities, such as building and renovating new facilities, fund start up and supply expansion grants, recruit early educators and staff who are well prepared and well compensated; and invest in quality.

Payment rates will cover the cost of high-quality child care, including scientifically-based, developmentally-appropriate and age-appropriate strategies to promote the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development of children, including specialized training for child care providers caring for infants and toddlers, children with disabilities and other populations. They can also use these funds to support establishing or expanding a statewide system of child care resource and referral services to support parents and providers and other activities focused on provider preparedness, child safety, child well-being, and school readiness.

Raising Wages for Early Educators

The Build Back Better plan addresses the child care staffing shortage and improves the quality of early childhood education by investing in higher wages and training for early educators and other child care providers. Today, parents pay unaffordable prices for early education while early educators—the majority of whom are women, disproportionately women of color—are paid poverty-level wages. The plan will address this disconnect by using federal funding to both lower costs for families and raise wages. Specifically, the bill ensures that all early educators and staff in both child care and pre-K are paid equivalent wages to elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience, and at least a living wage. The plan also provides funding to support training and professional development across programs.

In the first three years, states are required to use funds to increase child care provider payment rates, including increased wages. Funds are also available to support the training and professional development of the early childhood workforce, including degree attainment and credentialing. The state plan goes into effect no later than the fourth year, and requires that states have in place a wage ladder for staff of eligible child care providers, including a certification that states are meeting the equivalency and living wage requirements, as well as making annual cost of living adjustments.

For pre-K, similarly, by the fourth year, states must provide for salaries, and set schedules for salaries, for the staff of providers in the state preschool program that are equivalent to salaries of elementary school staff with similar credentials and experience: at a minimum, they must provide a living wage for all staff of such providers.

Promoting Equity

After generations of leaving Black and Brown children and families behind, these policies will establish an equitable system regardless of race, zip code, economic status, or disability. The policy requires that states account for how they will prioritize serving low-income children, children in underserved areas, infants and toddlers, children with disabilities and infants and toddlers with disabilities, children who are dual-language learners, and children who receive care during nontraditional hours. In addition, some populations of children are eligible for assistance in the form of contracted slots or direct certificates available through the state regardless of parental participation in eligibility activities, including children with disabilities, children experiencing homelessness, children in foster care, children in kinship care, and children who are receiving, or need to receive, child protective services.

Transformative Change for Children, Families, and Communities

The Build Back Better framework will ensure that the majority of families will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care for children under 6. The framework could allow states to expand access to high-quality, affordable child care to as many as 20 million children per year—and cover nine out of ten families across the country with young children. The United States is closer than it has been in fifty years to passing this “win for all” policy: the pathway to progress on gender, racial, and income equality; healthy child development and family well-being; educational outcomes; and economic growth and prosperity.


  1. It was expanded as part of the American Rescue Plan to $4,000 for one child and $8,000 for more than one, but that is expected to expire at the end of 2021.
  2. CDCTC was expanded through the American Rescue Plan Act, but that expansion is not extended by the current framework, so it will resort back to the prior policy. Read more here: