Comprehensive child care and early learning policy benefits everybody. From the benefits to the American economy and businesses, to the ways it improves healthy child development and educational outcomes, to the prospects for greater gender, racial, and economic equity, everyone in the United States has something to gain from a significant investment in these policies.
Today, Congress is considering the president’s Build Back Better plan, which includes the investment needed to begin to build the child care and preschool system the United States has needed for decades. This comprehensive early childhood education infrastructure will ensure that every parent who needs it can choose the child care provider that best meets their family’s needs, and also ensure at least a living wage for early educators. If implemented, the policies would have a tremendously positive impact on two generations of Americans—ensuring children have access to learning environments to give them a strong start in life, and supporting parents to pursue greater opportunities for themselves and their families.
This is the second of a series of briefs laying out the reasons why the United States must invest in a comprehensive child care and early learning system. This brief focuses on child well-being and educational outcomes.
Promoting Healthy Development
Study after study shows that early experiences affect all aspects of children’s development. Infants’ and toddlers’ brains develop more rapidly in early childhood than at any later point in life, forming more than 1 million new neural connections per second. Young children absorb language and learn to understand their environment in the context of interactions with trusted adults. Today, most parents work, and so they need affordable, high-quality child care and early learning options for their children—centers, pre-schools and home-based child care. Moreover, they need child care and preschool options that help their children build on the learning and development experiences they get at home with their families. Such experiences should optimize children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, including by fostering consistent relationships with caring, responsible educators and child care staff who are attuned and appropriately responsive to children’s social-emotional needs.
These good child care and early learning experiences and relationships lead to healthy child development and healthy children. In fact, good child care and early learning programs have also been associated with positive health benefits, including higher immunization rates, screening, and identification rates, as well as with improved mental health.
Preparing Children to Succeed in School and Beyond
The first five years are when a child’s brain develops fastest and when they learn key social, emotional, and academic skills, skills they’ll need during kindergarten and in order to have positive educational outcomes. Because they support these developments, high-quality early learning programs play an important role in setting children up for success in school, college, and beyond.
The first five years are when a child’s brain develops fastest and when they learn key social, emotional, and academic skills, skills they’ll need during kindergarten and in order to have positive educational outcomes.
Some of the strongest evidence of the positive effects of early learning on children’s success in school and on into adulthood come from Dr. James Heckman. His study “the Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program” found significant benefits from high-quality birth-to-5 programs for children, ranging from better health and quality of life to reduced interaction with the criminal justice system; improved labor income, IQ, and schooling outcomes; and increases in mothers’ labor income. Similarly, the Perry Preschool Project, a longitudinal study that followed participants in a pioneering high-quality early childhood education program that targeted Black children from low-income families for four decades, underscored the fruits reaped by children who experience fully supportive early learning environments. The study found that the program increased the educational attainment and earnings of participants, reduced interaction with the criminal justice system, and improved health and healthy behavior.
Studies of other early childhood programs have found similar positive results. For example, a 2021 study of the Boston Public Schools universal preschool program, found that compared to those who did not participate, attendees in the study were more likely to graduate high school, take the SAT, and enroll in college. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, middle-income children who attended universal pre-K entered kindergarten seven months ahead of their nonparticipating peers in pre-reading skills, while low-income children benefited even more, entering kindergarten ten to eleven months ahead of their peers. Early Head Start and Head Start have also been found to have positive intergenerational impacts on participants and their families. In a rigorous, longitudinal, large-scale evaluation, researchers found that Early Head Start is associated with children’s ability to thrive in school, family self-sufficiency, and parental support of child development.
Supporting School-Age Children with Afterschool and Summer Programs
In addition to the importance of early learning programs, the time that school-age children are not in school is also important. Since parental work schedules typically do not match school schedules—both the hours and the summer months—it is especially important to ensure that children have a safe, enriching place to be while their parents are at work. Before schools and child care programs closed in connection to the pandemic, nearly 8 million young people in kindergarten through twelfth grade were in after school programs. Studies have found that these programs, which often provide young people with academic enrichment, physical activities and the opportunity to develop social skills promote academic gains and improve students’ engagement in learning and motivation to learn. Summer camps can be particularly important, as children often lose gains in reading and other academic skills during the summer without them. In addition, summer program participation positively impacts school year performance.
Promoting Families’ Economic Stability
Comprehensive child care and early learning programs also support children by supporting their parents’ ability to earn money. Children benefit from their parents’ economic stability. Family income impacts children’s cognitive development, physical health, and social and behavioral development because it is connected not only to parents’ ability to invest in goods and services that further child development, but also to the stress and anxiety parents can suffer when faced with financial difficulty, which in turn can have an adverse effect on their children.
For low-income families, child care expenses for children under five often amount to 35 percent of their income. The average annual cost of full-time care for one child ranges from nearly $3,000 to over $20,000, depending on the age of the child, the type of care, and where the family lives. Working parents of young children have been spending an average of $13,000 per year on child care, which is a huge household expense for most families. In more than half of states, child care for an infant in a child care center costs more than in-state college tuition. Families that scrape together the money for safe, quality child care may do so to the detriment of retirement savings, the costs of basic necessities, or paying down debt.
When public investments make high-quality child care affordable for all, and when child care and early learning providers make a fair wage, more families have the economic resources needed to help their children thrive.
It’s not just the families of children who need care who are impacted. Child care and early learning providers—administrators, early educators, and other staff, who are disproportionately women of color—are some of the lowest paid workers in America. The continued undervaluing of their work leaves many child care workers (1 in 7), many of whom have their own children to support, living below the poverty line. Nearly half of all child care workers have needed some form of public assistance to meet their own families’ needs, and only 15 percent have access to health insurance through their job. Yet, relying on child care fees from parents alone to improve this situation will only create more inequity. A robust public investment is necessary to raise compensation, ensure the low staffing ratios necessary for high quality care and support the workforce. When public investments make high-quality child care affordable for all, and when child care and early learning providers make a fair wage, more families have the economic resources needed to help their children thrive.
Ensuring Skilled, Fairly Compensated, Culturally Competent Early Educators for All Children
After parents, child care providers are some of our children’s first teachers, and play a critical role in early childhood education. But unlike other professions, early childhood workers earn an average of only $13.50 per hour. These low wages are not just bad for early learning providers and their families: they also negatively impact the quality of care that children receive. Consistent relationships with stable, responsible adults are important for children’s healthy development. But low wages and tough working conditions for early childhood providers create high turnover, which can lead to children feeling insecure and unstable about whether their needs will be met. Early childhood educators earning low wages are also likely to experience high levels of stress, poor mental well-being, and high rates of food insecurity—all of which can impact their ability to support and nurture the children for whom they care.
If we want the best start for our kids, we need to provide higher pay and benefits to recruit, keep, and support the best early child care workers and early educators. In fact, multiple studies over the past several decades have pointed out the importance of pay and working conditions in boosting the quality of services for young children, which has been found to be largely connected to the ability to attract and retain a talented workforce.
Funding for better wages should also be coupled with workforce development programs and professional development opportunities to ensure a diverse and culturally competent early childhood workforce. Children under age 5 represent the most diverse segment of the American population: 50 percent are White, 26 percent are Latino, 14 percent are Black, 5 are percent Asian, and 1 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native. Roughly one-third of all of these children live in families that speak a language other than English at home. They deserve an early childhood workforce as diverse as they are. Children from minority groups benefit from having teachers and caregivers who share their same racial, ethnic, or linguistic background.
At the same time, all children benefit from being exposed to educators of different backgrounds as they move through early childhood education and into K–12 schooling. And the cultural competency of ECE teachers and caregivers, regardless of their own race or ethnicity, is important in helping to create affirming learning environments and promoting effective communication. The relative racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of ECE teachers and caregivers—roughly 40 percent of early childhood workers are people of color, and one-quarter speak a language other than English—is currently one of the sector’s strengths. Smart public investments in early childhood education can help sustain and grow this diversity while providing more opportunities for all early childhood providers to access training on cultural competency.
The Right Choice in Every Way
High quality child care and early learning lays a foundation for young children’s healthy development and success in school and beyond. After-school and summer programs provide older children with enrichment and academic support beyond the school day and year. Comprehensive early child care and early learning programs also provide economic support for families and reduce child poverty. Everyone should have the ability to provide for and care for their families. Investing in our children is not a political choice: it is a moral choice, and it is a smart choice.
The authors would like to thank Daniel Hains and Patricia Cole for their feedback. This project was supported by the Perigee Fund.