The Child Care for Working Families Act (CCWFA), reintroduced this week by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), would make child care and early education affordable so that any parent—no matter where they live or what they look like—would have great care options for their children. All children deserve the opportunity to be cared for in settings that allow them to thrive, and this bill will give parents the peace of mind that their children are safe and nurtured while the parents work, train, or search for jobs, or address medical or other needs.

Currently, high-quality child care and early education programs can cost families tens of thousands of dollars a year. For many families, this is simply unaffordable. Some parents—most often mothers—are forced to quit their jobs or reduce their hours when they can’t find or afford child care. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Child Care for Working Families Act would bring down costs for families, while also giving them more choices.

Core Principles of the Child Care for Working Families Act

First introduced in 2017, again in 2019 and 2021, and then reflected in the Build Back Better plan, the Child Care for Working Families Act has been improved to reflect the lessons learned from the collapse of the child care sector during pandemic, the incredible success of investments in child care through legislation such as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the national debates over implementing Build Back Better. Core to CCWFA are five key principles that have been in the legislation since the beginning. It would:

  • Guarantee assistance to every eligible family, including middle-class families, reaching millions of children.
  • Lower child care costs for families. The bill would lower costs by about $5,000 a year per family by establishing a sliding scale that ensures no family pays more than 7 percent of household income for child care, and by guaranteeing free child care for millions of the most under-resourced families.
  • Give every family the freedom to choose the care and early education for their children that works best for them, including during nontraditional work hours. The bill would make investments to build the supply of high-quality child care and pre-K options in diverse settings, including centers, family child care, faith-based programs, Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and pre-K programs in schools.
  • Invest in the workforce by providing higher compensation and training opportunities. Such investments are key to addressing the child care staffing shortages that threaten to further dismantle the child care sector. Providers will be paid in a way that supports lower costs for families and the ability to pay higher wages and invest in other quality measures.
  • Ensure all children have access to high-quality care that allows them to thrive and fosters their health, well-being, and learning during the earliest years of foundational brain development.

The Evolution of a Policy

Three of the most significant differences between the earlier iterations of the Child Care for Working Families Act and the new bill are: (1) foundational base grants for child care and early learning providers in every state, (2) expanded eligibility to reach millions more families, and (3) a focus on the early years.

Base Grants for Providers

A strong child care and early learning sector is key to ensuring families have access to a range of high-quality child care and early learning options. Ensuring that programs have what they need to operate ensures that they can keep their doors open and serve more children. The child care stabilization grants provided through the American Rescue Plan Act have been a lifeline for providers, and have also demonstrated how important it is to have funds going directly to providers to cover operating expenses. To date, 220,000 providers across the United States have used ARPA funds to support operational costs such as wages and benefits, rent and utilities, program materials and supplies, and cleaning and sanitation.

In addition, one critique of the Build Back Better plan was that not every state would take up the plan’s child care guarantee. While that was one possible outcome, it was not a forgone conclusion: every state has a child care program already in place, every state used the child care funds that came from the COVID-relief packages, and two-thirds of governors across parties prioritized child care and early learning in their 2023 state of the state addresses, suggesting that most states would have participated in Build Back Better. Regardless, CCWFA preemptively addresses these concerns by creating a formula to provide every state with these base grants.

Specifically, CCWFA provides funding to states to make grants to eligible child care providers primarily to cover the costs of child care personnel including wages and benefits, professional development and other staff support, as well as pay rent or mortgage and utilities, and invest in comprehensive services to support children and families. These grants would help replace funds set to disappear once ARPA’s stabilization grants are exhausted this fall.

Expanded Child Care and Early Learning to Millions More Families

One of the ongoing debates in child care and pre-K policy is who should be included in publicly supported programs. Opinions range from those who argue child care and pre-K should be like public K–12 education, where everyone is guaranteed access for free, to those who say publicly supported programs should be specifically for low-income families, while the parents are working. The original version of Child Care for Working Families Act expanded the program to include middle class families up to 150 percent of state median income (SMI), which on average in the United States is about $142,000 for a four-person family. It also reflected the additional eligibility requirements of the Child Care Development Block Grant, which specified that a child’s parent or parents had to be working or attending a job training or educational program in order to be eligible. The new bill gets closer to, but stops short of universal access.

The new bill makes high-quality child care available to every family regardless of income, relying instead on the sliding scale and copayment cap to ensure a progressive structure. For families with the lowest incomes (up to 85 percent SMI), child care would be free, with families with higher incomes paying on a sliding scale, up to 7 percent of family income. (It is worth noting that families at the highest income levels would already be paying less than 7 percent of their income for child care, with or without the bill.) The new bill also updates the activities that make a family eligible, to reflect the Build Back Better provisions and the Republican’s Child Care Development Block Grant Reauthorization Act. The bill recognizes all forms of work, education and job training, job search, health treatment, and family and medical leave as eligible activities, and provides automatic (or “categorical”) eligibility for the most vulnerable children.

A Focus on the Early Years

The first five years are when a child’s brain develops fastest and when they learn key social, emotional, and academic skills that support their health and well-being and prepare them for kindergarten. The resources put into high adult-to-child staffing ratios, improving the quality of early education jobs, and helping early educators support healthy child development yield significant results for children in the short term and over the course of their lives. These early investments can deliver benefits for decades and on an intergenerational basis. Build Back Better and the new Child Care for Working Families Act recognize the importance of the early years and focus on these first five years to ensure that young children can thrive.

The new BASE grants in the bill are available for child care providers who serve a wider range of ages. In addition to care and early education for their young children, families need child care for their school-age children before and after school, during the summers, and during nontraditional hours of work such as nights and weekends. The bill also leaves intact the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program to continue to subsidize care for children up through age 12, and 19 for disabled children.

The Need for the Child Care for Working Families Act Has Grown

The struggle families face in finding accessible, affordable, high-quality care for their children is getting worse. Parents—especially women—continue to face the challenges of finding and paying for child care and early learning options that meet their needs. Children are already being left behind, and providers across the country are already struggling to keep their doors open. The growing crisis will increase the demand for change and the pressure on Congress.

Child care prices continue to increase well beyond what most families can afford to pay. Over the past thirty years, the price of child care has risen at a much higher rate than consumer prices overall. Last month, it was up 6.8 percent from a year earlier, the largest increase since recordkeeping began in 1991. In most states, according to Child Care Aware of America’s analysis of 2021 data, the price of child care for households with two children exceeded annual housing payments by 28 percent to over 100 percent. Child care was more expensive than most other household expenses such as housing and health care in all U.S. regions.

Meanwhile, what hasn’t changed is that most parents need child care at a time when they can least afford it: when they are early in their careers. The impact of the high price of care is particularly harmful for parents of color who—due at least in part to ongoing systemic and structural inequities—are overrepresented in jobs paying lower wages, the ranks of those experiencing higher unemployment rates, and households living below the federal poverty level. Unlike with the cost of college tuition—which is also increasingly unaffordable—parents don’t have eighteen years to plan and save to pay for child care, nor do they have federally guaranteed loans at their disposal to pay for child care. In particular, as prices of other goods and services have risen in recent years, parents in need of child care but not currently eligible for assistance are being forced to put together patchwork solutions that create instability for their work lives and for their children.

Making matters even worse, the nation’s supply of child care slots continues to be insufficient to meet the need. Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the child care sector, data from the Center for American Progress showed that more than half of 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); even worse, two-thirds live in infant and toddler child care deserts. More recently, Child Care Aware of America found a licensed child care supply gap of 3.6 million slots based on 2021 data. While the COVID-19 relief funds have helped, the sector is still missing 16,000 programs that have closed down, and the supply of family child care, in particular, has been decreasing.

Meanwhile, staffing shortages in the early care and education sector will continue to put upward pressure on prices as child care businesses will have to raise wages to attract early educators—or go out of business. This will further exacerbate both the unaffordable prices and the scarcity of options. While most sectors have recovered from the pandemic-induced recession, the employment level for child care workers is 5.4 percent below what it was in February 2020. As private sector companies raised wages and improved benefits to recruit and retain workers in recent years, child care providers were largely stymied by being under-resourced, leaving the child care sector one of the lowest paid professions in the country. Early educators, who are primarily women and disproportionately women of color, are significantly underpaid for the valuable and complex work they do. The long history of Black women as caregivers is rooted in inequity and created the foundational racial, gender, and economic inequities that are reflected today through the devaluation of the child care and early education profession.

The child care stabilization funding provided to support the sector during the pandemic has been very helpful in supporting providers to offer higher pay, at least temporarily. However, when those funds expire later this year, the situation will likely become even more dire.

Keeping Forward Motion

The failure of the United States to build a child care and early learning system prior to the pandemic meant that the pandemic shutdown and the related recession eliminated many care options and thus shook down the house of cards arrangements that most families had been using to make their lives work. The significant federal investments through ARPA and previous COVID-relief bills showed the kinds of progress and stability possible with federal funds and were a lifeline for providers and families.

The reintroduction of the Child Care for Working Families Act comes at a crucial time. States must spend their child care stabilization funds by September 30, 2023, which means that the resources that have been used to increase wages for the child care workforce and help providers pay for higher rents and utility bills will no longer be available from the federal government. This will lead to more early educators leaving the field for-higher paying jobs elsewhere, which means programs will have to reduce capacity or close. Absent a remedy, the already challenging struggle families face to find affordable child care that meets their needs will only get worse. Employers will have a harder time filling jobs. The CCWFA offers smart solutions to all of these challenges, building the sustainable child care and early learning system communities need.

To recognize and support child care as the public good that it truly is requires political will. This new version of the Child Care for Working Families Act builds on the excellent foundation of its previous iterations, incorporates lessons from the pandemic, ARPA, and the experience of nearly achieving historic child care and early learning policy during the Build Back Better debate. Over the past few years, Congress has inched ever-closer to delivering to the American people the child care infrastructure that they need—it should take the next step. Children, families, and our economy cannot wait.