U.S. workers and their families are largely on their own when it comes to child care, despite evidence that the provision of child care delivers immediate and long-term economic benefits. For working parents facing competing priorities and lacking many child care options, the current child care market in the United States gives them a lot to consider. Do I trust this child care provider with my child? How much will care cost? Are the hours compatible with my schedule? Is the environment safe, friendly, and stimulating for my child?
What parents probably aren’t considering is how their child care choices can reverberate throughout the U.S. economy. From a macroeconomic perspective, however, child care decisions writ large are hugely consequential, whether it’s how families purchase care and what type of care to how these ily breadwinners’ employers and then, the broader economy.
Despite the important role child care plays in U.S. families’ lives and the economy, the private market remains largely insufficient in meeting their needs. With more parents in the workforce, fewer children are living with a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver than in prior decades. 1 Yet rising demand for child care has not translated into a similar rise in the supply of affordable, high-quality care. 2
Even when parents can find care, it is often too expensive, exceeding the cost of public college in many states. 3 And despite these high prices, child care workers are some of the lowest paid in the U.S. economy, subsisting on poverty wages that threaten their own families’ economic security.
This child care crisis in the United States did not develop by chance. The crisis is the result of decades of policy ilies for the sake of arbitrary budget constraints and fears over, in the words of President Richard Nixon, the supposed “family-weakening implications” of a child care system that facilitates maternal employment-devaluing the critical work of women, primarily women of color, in the process. 4
Publicly funded Kindergarten through 12th grade education has been the national norm for e approach has not been applied to early care and education-a term that encompasses traditional child care, pre-Kindergarten, and targeted programs such as Head Start. Policymakers at the local, state, and federal level have instead allowed a child care system to develop in which accessing care is treated as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a public goal, despite growing evidence that investing in a high-quality child care system is sound economic policy for all.
Researchers and scholars are now confirming what many parents already knew: The current child care ilies. 5 This is not simply an issue for families with young children-accessible, affordable, and high-quality care also has the potential to generate substantial economic activity and growth that benefits the entire U.S. economy. 6 This occurs by:
Roughly half of children live in so-called child care deserts, where there are insufficient licensed child care slots available to care for the local children
- Freeing up parents’ time and ability to work in the short term
- Supporting positive human capital development among children in the long term
- Improving working conditions and pay for millions of low-income child care workers
Unfortunately, the current child care market leaves these potential benefits to the U.S. economy unrealized. Public investment in child care can help correct this failure, facilitating economic gains for families, businesses, and the economy as a whole.
How close is this child care provider to my home or school?
This report will explore the economic potential of an accessible, affordable, and high-quality child care system in the United States. The report begins by reviewing the research on how early care and education can boost short-term growth by facilitating labor force participation among parents. The report then discusses the significant long-term economic growth potential of high-quality care as it pertains to childhood development, school readiness, and other socioeconomic outcomes. It then analyzes how the United States can unlock this growth potential through greater public investment.