The US needs a major federal investment in child care

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President Biden and Congress can take a major step in the coming weeks to strengthen our economy and help workers and their children by fully funding the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the biggest federal funding source for child care. 

Child care is not only a social program that lifts young families out of poverty. It’s also a vital economic program. Child care enables millions of parents, especially women, to be in the workforce. It provides employment to over 2 million workers, mostly women, and most child care centers are small businesses. In addition, child care is an educational program that supports children’s development and later success in school and beyond. 

With the nation facing a child care crisis, why haven’t we figured out how to finance child care in a way that makes it affordable to parents and a quality experience for children, and that provides a decent living for its teachers and a viable business for those who provide care? The problem is complicated and so are the solutions. At the Bipartisan Policy Center, we believe that a comprehensive federal approach to child care should include not only federal spending but also tax incentives and paid family leave policies. 

In the coming weeks, policymakers have the opportunity to take a major first step by investing significantly in the Child Care and Development Block Grant. 

CCDBG, which dates back to 1990 and is funded through both mandatory funding and annual appropriations dollars, provides block grants to states to provide subsidies to help low-income families afford child care so that parents can work or participate in work or educational programs and to improve the quality and availability of child care. Eligible children are up to age 13 and live in families with incomes up to 85 percent of state median income (SMI) — though states can limit eligibility to below that level and most do so. 

Due to limited funding, CCDBG serves only 1 in 9 eligible children, leaving the program far less effective than it could be.   

Nevertheless, CCDBG has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Congress last reauthorized it in 2014, when the Senate passed legislation to do so on a 96-2 vote and the House passed it by voice vote. More recently, as part of their efforts to offset the impact of COVID-19 and the ensuing deep recession, policymakers provided emergency funding through CCDBG to help stabilize the finances of child care providers. 

This past March, Republican senators Tim Scott (S.C.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) introduced legislation to expand the program so that states must serve everyone up to 85 percent of SMI and can go up to 150 percent, and their bill has 11 Republican co-sponsors. Meanwhile, in a letter in May, five Republican senators urged key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to double annual appropriations dollars for CCDBG over the next five years. 

At the Bipartisan Policy Center, similarly, we also propose that policymakers fully fund CCDBG so that it can serve all eligible children up to 85 percent of SMI and let states go up to 150 percent. Our proposal would help an estimated 4 million children up to age five.  For the same age group, CCDBG now serves 917,000 children. 

As a general matter, we believe that Congress should forge new policy, such as a fully-funded CCDBG, through a bipartisan process, because a partisan process will not likely produce sound and durable outcomes. Lawmakers could, for instance, enact stand-alone bipartisan legislation to reauthorize and expand CCDBG. 

But we already know that CCDBG has bipartisan support, and a stand-alone measure to reauthorize it won’t likely advance this year. So, if congressional Democrats move ahead this year on advancing a scaled-back economic package through the one-party budget reconciliation process, they should make closing CCDBG’s funding gap a major priority. 

Democrats have offered an array of ideas to address the child care crisis, but CCDBG stands out as an existing, proven mechanism that has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Without a significant near-term investment in CCDBG, child care providers and in turn access to high-quality child care for parents and their children will remain at risk. 

It’s time for lawmakers to act.  

Linda Smith is director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.