Get Ready to Fight for Early Care and Education!

By Jennifer Brooks,
Children’s Council Chief Program Officer

For years, the benefits of quality child care have been clear. Kids who participate in high-quality early education have higher academic achievement, less involvement in the criminal justice system and even better health outcomes.

But now there’s new evidence, outlined in a major article in the New York Times this week, that quality child care has a higher economic payoff—for parents, children and even grandchildren—than any other policy aimed at struggling families.

[UPDATE: Since the New York Times article was published, new research has shown that high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13% per year return on investment—a rate substantially higher than the 7-10% return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds.] The article goes on to talk about cost. And herein lies the rub, as the article states, “It’s children with parents who can least afford high-quality care who benefit most from it…”

As any parent can attest, paying for child care is a major expense. In San Francisco, the cost of child care accounts for 41% of a family’s basic expenses (e.g., housing, food, taxes, transportation, etc.). For families who struggle to make ends meet, high-quality care can be simply out of reach.

But the answer isn’t to get child care providers to charge less. In fact, it’s the opposite; we need to increase the income for caregivers. Child care providers, who are mostly women of color, are our children’s first educators, yet they’re paid less than dog walkers; 70% of the child care workforce earns less than $15 per hour.

Once, when my son was about four, he wanted to see what would happen if he pressed in on a balloon from both sides. What do you think happened? That’s right—balloon pops, child cries. I think of the cost of child care in a similar way; as a balloon pressed between two hands. One hand is desperately pushing to drive down the cost of care, while the other is pushing equally hard to increase the low pay for caregivers. If these are the only forces at play, the same thing is going to happen: our metaphoric balloon will pop and kids won’t get quality care and early education.

Addressing the cost of high-quality care for parents and low-wages for caregivers is not a problem that the market can solve alone. We need more government investment, plain and simple. Government investment is the valve that can release some of the pressure and keep that balloon from popping.

But, we have a long way to go. The article notes that “The United States spends 0.4% of GDP on child care—the lowest percentage among industrialized countries.” (For comparison, we spend 17% of GDP on health care.) San Francisco is making important steps to increase local investment in child care. Great job, keep it up! But we need to do even more locally and a lot more at the state level.

We’re fast approaching the annual budget season in Sacramento. In mid-May, we’ll get a look at—and have a chance to influence—what our legislators are prioritizing. We expect it to be more of the same, which just isn’t good enough. We hope you’ll stand with us as we raise our voices!

We know the power of quality early care and education, now get ready to fight for it! 

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