Three is the Magic Number for Child Care
Availability, Quality and Affordability are Each Necessary to Reap the Benefits of Early Care and Education
By Jennifer Brooks and Mona Malan
New research shows that participation in high-quality child care has a higher economic payoff—for parents, children and even grandchildren—than any other policy aimed at struggling families. The latest research shows 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.
Yet, for low-income families to reap these benefits, high-quality child care must be affordable and available. Unfortunately, San Francisco faces a severe shortage of quality child care for children younger than preschool-age. There is only enough licensed child care capacity to serve approximately 15% of infants.
How do we increase the availability of high-quality infant and toddler care? Invest in family child care programs.
Family Child Care (FCC) programs currently make up 60% of the total licensed infant capacity in San Francisco. Given the limited availability of commercial space in San Francisco and strict state licensing regulations, expanding infant center capacity is increasingly difficult. However, because FCCs operate out of child care providers’ homes, there is greater opportunity to increase supply. Further, FCCs can more easily provide care at the hours that are most needed in low-income neighborhoods, which may include overnight or weekend care for children with parents who work non-9-to-5 schedules.
Nearly half of all low-income children in San Francisco who are eligible for child care subsidies live in one of just three ZIP codes: 94112, 94124 and 94134 (Outer Mission, Excelsior, Ingleside, Bayview, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley). These neighborhoods have proportionally less child care center capacity than higher-income neighborhoods. FCC programs are critical to meet the demand.
What happens when families can’t find licensed care? Quality suffers.
Absent a choice of licensed options that meet their needs, families turn to family, friends and neighbors (called “license-exempt” if the family has a child care subsidy), who may or may not have any child development experience. 75% of these caregivers live in San Francisco’s highest-poverty neighborhoods; 95% percent of children cared for by these license-exempt providers are children of color.
How do we increase the supply of quality family child care? Create a pipeline; nurture continuous improvement.
Children’s Council is building on a foundation of capacity-building supports to FCC providers. We want to help more informal caregivers get licensed, build their child development and business skills, and connect them to comprehensive supports that that will enable them to provide high-quality child care and run successful businesses.
Increasing the Supply of High-Quality Family Child Care Programs
How do we address the affordability Catch-22? More government investment, plain and simple.
As any parent can attest, paying for child care is a major expense. In San Francisco, child care accounts for about 40% of a family’s basic expenses (e.g., housing, food, taxes, transportation, etc.). For families who struggle to make ends meet, high-quality child 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 formal educators, yet they’re paid less than dog walkers: 70% of the child care workforce in California earns less than $15 per hour.
Addressing the high cost of quality child care for parents and low wages for caregivers is not a problem that the market can solve alone. San Francisco recently rolled out a new Early Learning Scholarship system that makes important strides to address this tension between affordability and quality.
The city will pay providers who commit to continuous quality improvement higher rates for caring for low-income children, reflecting the true cost of providing quality child care. Early Learning Scholarships will target kids most at risk of not being ready for kindergarten, while stretching local dollars to serve more kids by better leveraging state and federal funding.
Early Learning Scholarships are an important step, but government needs to do more. Children’s Council estimates that it would take $100 million more to serve all families who need assistance and another $50 million to pay early care and education teachers wages on par with K-12 teachers. While $150 million looks like a daunting number, it’s only 1.5% of the city’s budget. Recognizing the payoff—for children, families and providers—investing in high-quality child care is clearly well worth the investment.