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The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 makes major strides to address the urgent climate crisis and address soaring inflation.
However, through the process of congressional compromise and political give and take, an important group of Americans was lost in the text of the final legislation: young children and their parents and caregivers. Though it was originally included in the Build Back Better legislation, funding for child care was eliminated from the final reconciliation package.
Rising costs, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and demand that exceeds supply have frayed an already fragile child care sector. Although access to safe, affordable child care is essential infrastructure that impacts all Americans, regardless of whether they have young children, the existing federal and state early learning and care programs only reach a fraction of income-eligible families. In the meantime, child care providers continue to be underfunded and understaffed, and there is no clear plan to address systemic barriers that limit families’ access to high-quality care.
Despite the challenging economic climate, the United States must invest in child care now. Families are struggling with the cost of food, rent and gas. They can’t afford the high cost of child care, either. Child care costs amount to nearly 10% of the average family income, or 40% higher than what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines as affordable. Lower-income families spend an even higher percentage of their income on child care.
This isn’t a new problem. Historically, the federal government has never adequately funded early learning and care. According to the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks third to last (ahead of only Cyprus and Turkey) when it comes to the percentage of gross domestic product public spending for families and young children. We came close to a national child care plan in 1971 with the Comprehensive Child Development Act that would have created publicly funded child care centers across the country, but President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Even though there is strong bipartisan support for child care among voters and legislative leaders, passing universal child care has not been a priority for Congress.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fragile nature of the infrastructure that supports children and families in the United States. As many families experienced during the pandemic, child care programs and schools were closed for months. The hardship on parents and children was immeasurable. Parents at every economic level were without child care and unable to work, leading to lost wages and financial struggle. Children also suffered greatly throughout the pandemic without access to in-person learning and social interaction with their peers.
Quality care ensures that children receive critical academic and socio-emotional support in their early years and that they arrive in kindergarten ready to learn. It also results in a better-prepared workforce, a more stable society and a country that is well-positioned to compete in a global economy. With adequate child care, more parents — especially mothers — will return to work, expanding the workforce and contributing to a thriving economy. All Americans have a stake in this.
President Joe Biden originally proposed $400 billion for early child care and preschool in Build Back Better. We call on the Biden administration and Congress to pick up where the Inflation Reduction Act left off.
Fund early childhood education and child care facilities for American families as Build Back Better originally intended. Investing in child care as infrastructure is a national imperative given its potential to improve child development and health, women’s employment, business productivity and overall economic growth. Prioritizing our young children is an investment in our future.
Ruth Fernández, who has a doctorate in education, is the executive director of First 5 Contra Costa, which helps young children in Contra Costa, California, start school healthy, nurtured and ready to learn. Savitha Moorthy, who also holds a doctorate, is the executive director of Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, a Bay Area nonprofit working at the intersection of social justice and early childhood education.
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