Today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act—the boldest vision for child care reform in decades. The bill would make child care a national priority, lowering child care costs for hard-working families, improving the quality and availability of care, and raising teacher pay.
Families need access to significant public resources in order to make child care affordable; but equally needed are public investments in the child care workforce. In “Quality Jobs, Quality Care,” my co-authors, Halley Potter, Andrew Stettner and I argued that “the United States needs to make significant public investments to transform the current broken patchwork of Early Care and Education (ECE) programs into a coherent, high-quality system, and these investments must recognize that compensation and diversity are both central components of high-quality ECE.” This bill preserves the diversity of child care options that families need while valuing the people who provide care for our children.
Child care is a substantial part of a family’s budget—often exceeding the cost of rent or college tuition. Many families struggle simply to find the care that they need: they live in a child care desert, with either no available centers at all, or far too many children competing for the available openings; or they work nights and weekends and can’t find affordable care when they need it; or they have nearby care, but the price is just too high for them to pay it without going into debt.
At the same time, even with the high child care bills that parents pay, those employed in roles that provide care are often struggling to get by, with median wages of barely more than $10 an hour. Low wages lead to economic insecurity and high turnover, which can impact the quality of care. However, investing in care jobs would not only ensure higher quality care: it would help to ameliorate the economy’s deficit of quality employment, nourishing it with jobs that, furthermore, can’t be outsourced or automated, and are needed in every community. And since care jobs also support the ability of parents to work, growing the care sector benefits the labor force as a whole.
Investing in care jobs would not only ensure higher quality care: it would help to ameliorate the economy’s deficit of quality employment, nourishing it with jobs that, furthermore, can’t be outsourced or automated, and are needed in every community.
The Child Care for Working Families Act addresses both of these challenges. It increases the resources available for families to find affordable child care when and where they need it. And by building on the current diversity of care options, it reinforces the priority of a diverse workforce.
While this bill is not expected to move in the current political climate, it’s important to set a new bar for what’s possible for working families: financial assistance that covers the high cost of care, and significant investments in quality care and jobs. Specifically, this bill would cap child care costs at 7 percent of a family’s income for families with up to one and a half times their state’s median income—about $100,000 per year. It would provide federal resources to cover the cost of a living wage for teachers and caregivers, and would meet quality standards for young kids and also for after-school and summer care. And it would expand the supply of care, thereby leading to an increase in the amount of quality care overall, due to the increase in competition.
It’s important for any discussion of child care policy to also consider the gender inequality that continues to structure child care at every level. Women have historically been the primary caregivers, and require child care in order to be part of the workforce. The number of stay-at-home dads is increasing, but still hardly matches the number of moms charged with child care. Furthermore, the majority of those moms need to juggle caring for their children with bringing in money: seven in ten mothers are in the workplace, and more than 40 percent bring home at least half of their families’ earnings. Mothers who receive help affording child care are more likely to get and keep a job. And beyond their own families, women also make up the majority of the child care workforce. Child care should be valued for the essential work that it is, and men should play a larger role in it as well, but until the gender inequity has been corrected, it is imperative that we support the women tasked with providing their families with both child care and income.
At a time when the public conversation requires defending our basic values and rights, it’s equally important to promote our vision for what we want and what we believe is possible. Comprehensive child care for working families that supports quality care and quality jobs is both necessary and possible. The introduction of the Child Care for Working Families Act is the next step in making that possibility into reality.