Policy Resource

Senator Harkin Makes a Powerful Statement for Babies

Apr 18, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, the Baby Monitor reported the introduction of a bill, the Rebuild America Act (S. 2252) authored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).

This sweeping legislation would support families who are striving to work and build a future for their children—families commonly referred to as the “middle class” as well as those who aspire to join them. Tucked into this large bill is a pretty significant statement, not only about child care’s role in allowing families to work, but also about infants’ and toddlers’ needs for high quality services.

The Rebuild America Act covers a broad range of issues that affect the prosperity of our nation and the economic engine that working families provide. Its strategies include investing to create jobs through rebuilding schools, supporting teachers, and increasing manufacturing power; creating financial stability and a better future for middle class families as well as seniors; and restoring fairness to the tax code and ensuring fiscal responsibility.

A prominent feature is a substantial investment in child care—and not just any child care, but care that meets high levels of quality. The proposed bill would pump $5 billion a year for 10 years into an enhanced “CCDBG Plus” program provided to states through a formula. Ten percent of those funds would be directed at improving the child care workforce; another 10 percent would support quality improvements. The remainder would be used to fund high-quality early care and learning services, with recognition of parents who work non-traditional hours and children with special needs. Services under the Rebuild America Act would have to meet the Head Start/Early Head Start program performance standards, the top tier of a state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, or be accredited by a national accrediting body.

But here’s the big news for babies: two-thirds of the funds for services are directed at high quality programs for infants and toddlers. Senator Harkin’s efforts on behalf of quality services for very young children will not be unfamiliar to those who have followed the Early Head Start program as it has grown over the years. The child care proposal in this new bill carries that commitment further.

As ZERO TO THREE Executive Director Matthew Melmed said in a letter to Senator Harkin prior to the bill’s introduction, “By directing such a significant proportion of funds to services for very young children, this bill makes a powerful statement that the earliest years are an important time for public investment and that society has a strong interest in ensuring that families can provide positive developmental experiences for their infants and toddlers.”

To be clear, all ages of children need a continuum of high quality early childhood experiences. Yet the biggest gaps are for infants and toddlers, the most likely to be in lower quality care. Senator Harkin’s bill takes to heart three things we know: First, babies’ earliest experiences form the foundation for all learning that follows. Second, with 60% of U.S. mothers with infants working, a significant portion of these early experiences unfold in a child care setting. And third, parents of infants and toddlers—especially at the lower rungs of the economic ladder—often can’t find good quality care at any price, much less care they can afford.

The need for more, better, and financially feasible child care for young children is a major piece of the economic puzzle for families now and for their children in the future, when they will form the backbone of the American workforce. Senator Harkin’s overall bill comes with a high price tag, and its prospects in the current stringent budgetary environment are daunting. Still, as Melmed’s letter said, even “in these times of economic insecurity and budgetary distress, it is important that we not lose sight of the priorities necessary to meeting our current challenges while laying the foundations of a vigorous future for our nation.”

For babies, it is a vital step just to have a champion so clearly put down a marker for their essential needs as their parents go off to work. While it is a way from introducing a bill to realizing change—in this case having more high quality services in place—it is important to start. After all, no vision is ever realized if someone doesn’t first give it voice.

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