In his State of the Union address last week, President Biden emphasized cutting the cost of child care as a key action the nation can take to “change the standard of living for hard-working” Americans. Cutting child care costs would, he said, “help parents, including millions of women, who left the work force during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford child care, to be able to get back to work. Generating economic growth.”

The way in which access to high-quality child care is inextricably linked to economic growth highlights the way in which our nation’s success relies heavily on child care. Yet, the current U.S. public investment in child care is dismal — exponentially lower than that of other wealthy countries. What’s more, the people who do the critical work of nurturing young children’s hearts and minds earn some of the lowest wages in the country. Child care providers are disproportionately women of color who work at the intersection of racism and sexism in the education system and the business world. Racial disparities persist in pay — Black early educators earn an average of 78 cents less per hour than their White counterparts, even when controlling for education level. In many areas, Black and Latina early educators are more likely than White counterparts to hold positions earning the lowest wages, such as aide or assistant teacher, rather than lead teacher.

During the pandemic, scores of providers are experiencing eviction, mortgage foreclosure, and utility shut off as they struggle with employment uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Widespread closures of child care programs across the country have disproportionately affected families with low incomes, who are more likely to take unpaid leave or exit their jobs than their higher-income peers who can take paid and sick leave.

In a new report from The Education Trust, in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, we present findings from interviews with child care providers and state and local chamber leaders across the country. Providers identified four key challenge areas:

  1. Accessing funding
  2. Supporting health and safety of workers and children
  3. Connecting child care supply and demand
  4. Retaining child care workers

The report offers ways in which state and local chambers can support working families by supporting female providers of color. We also propose ways in which states can support young learners by supporting child care providers. Support from states and state and local chambers is urgent as child care programs collapse across the country.

There’s still a way to make a seismic shift in how our country supports families and young children. Improving the state of the nation’s child care system was a significant — and and widely supported –
element of the Build Back Better Act. That bill would have invested roughly $390 billion to replace a fragmented patchwork of funding streams and policies that have long comprised the early childhood education landscape in the U.S. It also invests in child care providers, bolstering access to high-quality early care and education in a variety of settings where children learn and grow, including schools, Head Start, and center-based and home-based child care. Congress still has a chance to show families of young children and child care providers the respect they deserve by preserving the child care and universal pre-K portions of Build Back Better to radically improve things now and going forward, to avoid another crisis point.

Providers and families shoulder too much of the tremendous costs of child care, resulting in families paying college-tuition-level for child care. Providers do not make living wages and often have no benefits. Providers face a variety of barriers to accessing professional development opportunities, from linguistic to financial to logistical. The proposed reforms would make significant investments toward child care and universal pre-K that could radically improve the daily lives of children, families, and providers. Proposed federal law would:

  • Provide grants for child care programs to start up, expand, and increase quality
  • Create new opportunities for child care workers to build skills and capacity
  • Raise provider wages to match those of elementary school teachers with similar qualifications

Child care providers do the critical work of giving our nation’s youngest learners a strong, healthy start. Providers, children, and families deserve better than our existing, inadequate early childhood education landscape; Congress still has time to deliver for them.