Policy Resource

The Cost of Child Care for Working Parents—and their Young Children

Aug 18, 2013

This post is an expansion of a letter to the editor from Matthew Melmed, Executive Director of ZERO TO THREE, in response to an article on child care.

In a New York Times opinion piece, “Crushed by the Cost of Child Care,” Alissa Quart accurately describes the challenges families in all walks of life face in finding and affording care for their young children in order to work. But the discussion of what to call this care reminds us of another important aspect: its role in early childhood development. Babies’ brains don’t know what we adults label the arrangements in which they spend a good portion of their day. Young children are learning all the time, from whatever experiences happen to come their way. So regardless of whether we call it babysitting or early childhood education, child care is the context in which a great deal of brain development unfolds. The quality of that environment, and most important the knowledge and skills of the caregiver, can make a big difference in whether that development is strong and vigorous or whether it is actually impeded by unresponsive caregiving.

The consequences for later school readiness are profound. It is a mistake to think children begin preparing for school only when they are able to learn content such as the ABC’s. In fact, the foundation for the brain architecture on which all later learning will rest is being formed in the first few years of life through everyday experiences that open up the world to children, give them language to interpret and communicate, and give them the confidence to explore and learn. These early experiences start children on the path not just for success in school, but in life. While of course babies and toddlers are the province of their parents, we all have a stake in whether or not they succeed. They are the workers who will need to compete in the global economy of the future if our nation is to remain strong, and a large proportion of them are growing up without the ingredients to reach their potential.

Low-income children, whose parents are least able to afford high quality care, have the most to gain or lose. They often fall behind their more affluent peers before age two. Research shows they can particularly benefit from high quality care, but often have access only to low quality care that can actually be detrimental to development. Infusing quality in a child care system isn’t easy, especially one that relies for financing on parent payments and subsidies that reach far fewer families than need them and don’t begin to cover the high costs of quality. Even in North Carolina, which has a long history of systematic efforts to raise child care quality and has made great strides, infants and toddlers with child care subsidies have been found the least likely to be in the highest levels of care.

Ms. Quart mentions the President’s prekindergarten proposal, which we at ZERO TO THREE applaud. In its birth to five vision, it would seek to infuse Early Head Start quality into child care, through partnerships between the two. But many infants and toddlers still will be languishing in care that is not what it should be while waiting to grow up and attend preK. A case in point: Georgia’s preK program for 4 year-olds is considered to be sandbox-shovel ready for a state-federal preschool initiative. Yet, a study by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina found that two-thirds of Georgia’s center-based classrooms for infants and toddlers and three-quarters of its family child care provider environments were of poor quality. Such low levels of quality during the early years could turn preK into a remedial program that must help young children play catch up rather than forging ahead.

We certainly don’t minimize the struggles of parents trying to juggle their jobs, which support their families and contribute to the nation’s productivity, with the wellbeing of their young children. Almost two-thirds of mothers with infants are in the workforce. So, we heartily agree that “we should not be ashamed to ask for” the “high-quality universal, subsidized day care” Ms. Quart suggests. We would just add that making this plea is important not only for today’s workforce that includes many parents, but also for the preparedness of the workforce of the future, now playing in a sandbox near you.

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