When Congress finally passed legislation to fund the federal government March 23, it tucked a record investment in child care inside, a big win for low-income families that could signal more help in the future.
The $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill contained the largest ever yearly increase for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CDBG), $2.37 billion, which will push annual funding to more than $5 billion. This investment means there will be more money for child care subsidies to help families struggling with the sky-high cost of care, as well as investments in healthier and high-quality programs.
The investment also means approximately 151,000 more children across the country could gain access to good child care, according to an analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy.
It is a sign policymakers may finally recognize that child care in the U.S., where its cost can rival college tuition and access to quality care is inconsistent, is one of the biggest challenges facing working poor parents today. In many states, child care can cost more annually than a year of in-state tuition at a four-year public college, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Supporters won this record investment in child care during one of the most divisive political periods in Washington, D.C.’s recent history, perhaps signaling a deepening of bipartisan support for future investments.
“I do hope this is a trend, the beginning of a real investment in a system that has been neglected and has been left on the backs of low-income mothers and low-income women of color,” said Mary Ignatius, statewide organizer for Parent Voices in California, where 11,770 more children could now receive child care support.
“This could be a great equalizer particularly for low-income children of color, starting them off with this access is going to have long-term benefits.”
There is no guarantee, of course, that federal investment in child care will continue to rise. But, decades of research show it’s a good idea. High-quality child care can be a powerful tool to address inequality, narrowing the opportunity gap between children from lower-income families and those with higher-earning parents.
Research has shown children who attend certain high-quality preschools and child care programs perform better in school, are more likely to attend college, less likely to land in prison, and achieve other positive outcomes in life.
This may help explain why in a period of bitter political fighting investment in early learning has emerged as a relatively rare sanctuary of agreement.
A turning point in support for the Child Care and Development Block Grant came when Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, a comprehensive legislative plan to address financial and policy challenges in child care today, in 2017.
The measure was the result of an inclusive process that gained support from a large group of organizations, according to a person familiar with the process. While that bill has not passed the Senate it helped generate support for other investments in child care.
When legislators proposed adding a near doubling of funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant to the spending measure there was little pushback, and even less during final negotiations, the person added.
In addition, the spending bill will help working parents in other ways, New America Foundation reported.
The new funding would “help meet the needs of parents who work non-traditional hours. Related to parents who need non-traditional child care, the omnibus bill also significantly increases funds for Child Care Access Means Parents in School, a program that helps low-income college students pay for child care costs. Despite President Trump’s plan to eliminate the program, the omnibus increases funding for the program by $34.78 million for a total of $50 million,” the progressive think tank reported on its blog, citing a congressional report accompanying the spending measure.
And the omnibus bill increases investment in Head Start and Early Head Start, two long-running early education programs for low-income families.
The test of this new support for early education will come in next year’s spending bill, and the ones that follow.
For now, the latest spending deal means thousands more children in Mississippi can enroll in good child care programs, according to Carol Burnett, head of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. But, there are 21,000 potential students on the waiting list, and probably another 50,000 to 60,000 who are eligible, Burnett added.
“Even with this fabulous news we are going to have to keep pushing for more funding so more families can be served,” Burnett said.
Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice. Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. About the top image: Angelica Gonzalez’s children are seen in November 2015 on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. She has fought for child care funding and reform. Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News.
2018 © Equal Voice for America’s Families