Until a year ago, parents’ struggles to find quality, affordable child care were largely considered a personal problem. Just another thing to juggle when working while raising kids.
The pandemic upended that conventional wisdom, as work and family obligations collided. With child-care centers shuttered, providers scarce, and schools and workplaces operating remotely, the system’s shortcomings became everyone’s problem and, increasingly, a public-policy issue.
The Child Care for Working Families Act, reintroduced by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last week, aims to change all that. The bill would make quality child care and preschool more available, and more affordable for lower-income working parents. It’s a systemwide solution whose time has come.
The act would create a federal-state partnership to ensure that no working family earning less than 150% of the state median income would pay more than 7% of its income on child care, with lower-wage earners paying less or nothing at all.
The bill would expand access to preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and take several steps to increase the supply of quality care. This is exactly the type of comprehensive support needed to help parents escape the Catch-22 of not being able to afford the child care that would enable them to financially support their families.
Murray’s proposal would broaden and support state lawmakers’ decision this session to expand eligibility for the state Working Connections Child Care and Early Childhood Education and Assistance programs. Although official cost estimates are pending, outside experts have estimated fully implementing Murray’s bill could cost as much as $600 billion over the next 10 years. A phased approach or scaled-back program would be a more affordable first step.
But the cost of inaction is also steep: In 29 states, including Washington, the annual cost of full-time, center-based child care exceeds the average in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, according to a 2018 analysis from nonprofit child-care advocates Child Care Aware.
The prohibitive cost and limited availability of child care is a drag on the state economy: Even before the pandemic wreaked havoc with work and child-care arrangements, the lack of quality, affordable care cost the state about $2.08 billion per year in employee turnover and missed work, according to a 2019 report from the Washington State Child Care Collaborative Task Force. Nearly one in five Washington parents surveyed as part of that report said they’d turned down a job offer or promotion because they couldn’t find care.
The last 12 months have made an already-dire situation worse for parents. But they’ve also clarified the problem. There’s no denying now that child care is essential to a healthy economy. It’s time to treat it as such.