Op-Ed

Ending child care deserts is possible in 2020. We would all benefit.

Will Wright’s recent article about Kentucky’s child care deserts brought much-needed attention to the lack of available and affordable child care in the state. Two crucial points we want to emphasize in response are that all of us—whether or not we have children—have incredible gains at stake when we advocate for increases to federal child care subsidies, and politicians respond when we make our voices heard on this issue. As Congress begins working out details of the 2020 budget, this is an especially critical time to advocate for increased funding of these subsidies.

As Wright points out, child care subsidies neither reach all families who need them, nor do they reimburse centers for the full cost of providing quality care. The average cost of infant child care in Kentucky is $6,258, more than half the cost of public university tuition (which is just over $10,000). For low-wage couples at the poverty line, the cost of care for two children consumes half their annual income, while one-third of a single parent’s income is required for each child they have in care. When families can’t afford the child care options in their communities, centers must close their doors, and the problem of affordability many households face becomes a problem of availability for even more.

These financial burdens for families struggling to work and child care providers struggling to stay open in turn create considerable economic and social burdens for our state. According to one estimate, Kentucky loses $939 million in economic activity due to the number of parents (primarily women) kept out of the workforce by child care costs. And the long-term economic gains of investing in early childhood education are considerable as well. For every dollar invested, we see a return of up to $7.30 from impacts that last well beyond childhood, especially for children growing up in poverty. Adults who’ve experienced high-quality early education are more likely to graduate from high school and college and more likely to enjoy good health in adulthood. They are also less likely to engage in drug use, become pregnant as teenagers, rely on public assistance, or enter the criminal justice system.

These outcomes are why economists have been saying for decades that the most impactful investments we can make in education actually occur before many kids are in school.

But the benefits of high quality experiences for young children are not just economic; they also have been shown to increase cognitive abilities, improve language development, result in better relationships with peers, and reduce conflicts with adults. And, of course, they provide kids with the chance to be kids in ways all too often denied by poverty.

The federal Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is a key source of child care subsidies for working families in Kentucky, but it currently reaches just half of eligible families nationwide due to a lack of funding. While the Trump Administration’s recently proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 includes a $1 billion increase in CCDBG funding, this number is just a fraction of the estimated $5 billion needed to adequately cover costs of quality care for the number of households in need nationwide.

The good news is that our representatives in Washington listen when we speak up for investments in early childhood. Constituent demand for increases in CCDBG funding played a crucial role in 2018, when Congress doubled it. But when we’re silent, our members of Congress hear that, too. It’s crucial that we let them know that using tax dollars to ensure every family can send their children to high-quality care providers creates better outcomes for working families and kids, it opens more child care provider doors, and it creates a stronger future for all of us.

Cindy McGaha is a professor of child and family studies at Berea College. Her research and teaching focus on creating high quality educational settings for young children and their families.

Andrea Woodward is an associate professor of social sciences at Berea College, where her teaching and research focus on social stratification and policies affecting children and families.

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