Advancing Early Childhood Care and Education Policy in the U.S.

While not always a pressing domestic priority for all Americans, early childhood care and education (ECCE) for young children has been in the forefront for many working families for decades. In order to work or go to school or training, parents need someone to watch their young children before they are old enough to go to school. Sixty-one percent of children under the age of five are in some type of regular ECCE arrangement, and ECEE serves dual purposes. It not only allows parents to be employed or be in school or training, it also helps prepare children for school and academic success—this is especially true for children from families with low incomes. Even quality afterschool care or out-of-school-time care for school-age children can be hard to obtain. Finding the kind of care mothers and fathers want for their children and then learning they can’t afford it has broken many parents’ hearts and budgets. What are they to do? 

In reality, child care has been with us so much longer. At the beginning of the 20th century, advocates and progressives such as Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop (the first head of U.S. Children’s Bureau) set up settlement houses that provided child care for young children while their mothers worked. The federal government also stepped in during World War II, providing round-the-clock child care for women working in war-related factories and ship building plants. While there were calls after the war as well as later for federal support of child care for working mothers, there was not support for a universal child care policy. Instead, Congress began to link child care funding to poor and low-income women’s employment. Head Start was created in 1964 as a comprehensive program for children from low-income families. In 1990, the Child Care and Development Block Grant provided funding to states to support child care. In 1996 this funding was wrapped into the Child Care and Development Fund when welfare reform focused on employment for lowincome mothers.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the U.S. spends one of the lowest amounts of money, for children under the age five, of all developed nations. In fact, federal funding only reaches 12 percent of children from low-income families. In addition, middle-income families who earn too much to be eligible for publicly- funded ECCE are left in a quandary as they cannot afford the higher quality programs that higher income families can afford. It also means that some families spend up to 30 percent of their income to pay for child care. This is especially true when paying for infant ECCE, for single-parent families, and for low-income families. Often these families must forego or reduce other important expenses such as housing, insurance, saving for college, or retirement. And here’s another major concern: many families can’t escape poverty if both parents are not in the workforce. Often, families settle for care with informal and unlicensed providers where quality can be questionable. Faced with inequality even before entering school, these children can start off kindergarten behind in language, reading, and math skills and will never be able to catch up to their more affluent peers. Even in licensed care, the majority of ECCE arrangements have been rated as mediocre in quality.

Furthermore, many child care providers earn low wages, and their own families are trying to make ends meet. Many early care and education educators are among the lowest paid in America with the average pay of $10.44/hour (in 2015) making them less paid than dog walkers or parking lot attendants. Fifteen percent of child care professionals live in poverty and 20 to 35 percent leave their jobs each year. Many educators must look for subsidized health care, and rely on food stamps and other needs-based help.

The U.S. is facing a crisis when it comes to early childhood care and education. This crisis revolves around affordability, quality, and the ECCE workforce. It should be noted that some states and cities have created initiatives to address this crisis—for example, some states have implemented paid parental leave. But currently there is no comprehensive program at the federal level that could help all families.

I propose that a federal and national early childhood care and education policy is needed. Such a national policy needs to be framed by universal ECCE programs that meet the needs of children and families and take into account parents’ work schedules. To address affordability, we must reduce the parental share of cost of child care in that:

  • there is free universal pre-kindergarten for all preschool-aged children,
  • there are subsidies on a sliding scale for infants, toddlers, and school-age children for all types of EECE—including relative care, center-based care, and regulated family child care homes—and
  • there is paid parental leave offered to facilitate parental care. We need to address quality and ensure equal access to high quality ECCE programs with:
  • age-appropriate national standards and regulations for group size, ratio, health and safety, and workforce qualifications,
  • alignment of higher education with core competencies, and,
  • provision of ongoing professional development for educators, including coaching. With respect to the workforce, we need to raise wages, maintain diversity, and reduce turnover by:
  • providing worthy wages for educators,
  • ensuring that ECCE pay is comparable to the pay for public school teachers, and
  • providing a career lattice with multiple points onto the career ladder and multiple advancement paths.

Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and member of the Work, Families & Children research group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her research focuses on child development, early care and education, and school readiness, with a focus on policy implications. Learn more at

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