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Patch the Holes in California’s Child Care System

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama focused some of his sharpest prose on child care as a national economic priority to keep families working and financially secure. My favorite applause line: “It’s not a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have.”

That is very true in our home state of California, where more than $1 billion in cuts made to the child care and early education system since the Great Recession have not yet been restored. As our new issue brief discusses, although some important steps were taken to rebuild the system last year, it is still miles away from being what California families need. And new federal requirements are making changes to our system an economic imperative. 

Child care and early learning programs are vital for parents and children. Research has shown that access to affordable, quality child care is important to the long-term health and well-being of children and communities. High-quality child care programs have been found to provide a long list of benefits, including increasing a child’s lifetime earnings, reducing crime, and lowering welfare and remedial education costs. Even modest investments that increase access to affordable, high quality child care yield important returns towards our nation’s future.

The changing nature of California’s economy—like that of our nation—means that more and more parents have to work outside the home and juggle competing demands in their family and work lives. But among families with child care expenses and working mothers, families below the Federal Poverty Level pay an average of 30 percent of their income in child care costs, compared to 8 percent among higher income families. Higher relative costs means that low-income families risk losing their jobs or resort to placing their children in unstable, low-cost child care.

Bargain child care is not the answer. Quality child care settings offer nurturing and supportive early learning environments, and those are the key to the big positive impacts listed above. The first five years of a child’s brain development are critical; research shows that the more positive engagement children experience from parents and caregivers during these formative years, the better their cognitive outcome. Safe, educationally stimulating environments help children develop the cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

In California, years of funding cuts have left its child care system gasping for air. Several bills and budget proposals introduced this session hold promise to improve our state’s weakened system. The Women’s Legislative Caucus proposes adding $600 million to the child care system to improve reimbursement rates for providers and increase the number of child care slots. Individual legislators propose a wide range of fixes, from growing the number of child care and preschool slots (SB 548 and AB 47), raising wages for child care providers to make the system more stable (SB 548 and AB188), and centralizing the application process (AB 833). Fixes like these are important and deserve our attention and discussion. But given how far we have to come, it is likely that years of focused efforts by policymakers are necessary to create a system that we can be proud of. 

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