Child Care Quality Matters Just As Much As Affordability

With help from his daughter, Ivanka, President Donald Trump introduced a plan during his election campaign meant to address the struggle of working parents through the creation of a federal child care policy. The plan itself has drawn criticism for unfairly benefitting already-wealthy parents, thanks to its focus on offering tax deductions. But even if it were to provide financial relief to all families, well, the reality is that it would still be missing the mark. That's because, while cost is certainly a major obstacle for most parents, child care quality matters just as much as affordability. While a tax deduction might be a nice benefit to some parents' pocketbooks, it still won't really do a whole lot to actually enrich their children's early childhood care.

According to a report released Wednesday, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute found that, not only do lower-income Americans have trouble affording child care costs, they also have greater difficulty accessing child care options that are high-quality. That's not entirely surprising — the more limited your financial resources, the more likely you will be to send your children to the daycare you can afford, not necessarily the one you think would be most beneficial developmentally. But aside from being a heartbreaking reality for far too many parents, research has also proven that access to quality early care and education before the age of 5 has a measurable effect on long-term achievement. And when children miss out on those opportunities, they are more likely to have poorer educational outcomes as they get older.

Although child care is a literal necessity for many American families, it's also a significant expense. According to CNBC, most families spend an average of 11 percent of their incomes on child care if they have children under age 5, but the percentage can increase significantly the lower the household income (families who earn less than $50,000 a year spend 22 percent on child care, for example). And given that the country still lacks a guaranteed paid maternity leave law — making it the only developed country without one, according to Forbes — far too many parents really have no choice but to go back to work sooner than they would like.

According to the Department of Labor, only about 12 percent of private sector workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers, which, it itself, is a pretty grim statistic. But that 12 percent of workers also happens to be comprised primarily of parents already considered high-wage — meaning, in other words, that those who need paid parental leave the most are also the ones most likely to not have it offered to them.

In general, child care is thought to be considered affordable if it costs less than 10 percent of the overall family income. But, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the only states in which parents earning a median family income could conceivably find affordable infant care would be in South Dakota and Wyoming. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, child care would be considered too expensive for more than a whopping 80 percent of families.

What's worse though, is that, even though families are stretching themselves to afford child care, there's no guarantee the care their children get will actually be good even after shelling out a ton of money for it. One reason? Even though child care workers in America are expected to care for infants and young children during one of the most crucial windows of development in their entire lives, the work itself is largely undervalued. As the The Economic Policy Institute noted, "most educators working with children from birth to age five are not expected to possess professional qualifications," which reinforces the idea that child care is unskilled work. And unsurprisingly, most early childhood educators in America have a wage to match: preschool teachers are among the country’s lowest-paid workers, and 1 in 7 child care workers live in families with incomes below the official poverty line.

That stands in pretty stark contrast to the child care policies in other countries, though. According to The American Federation of Teachers, preschool and kindergarten teachers in New Zealand receive the same level of pay as primary and secondary school teachers — which also means that early educators are more likely to be highly qualified. In Japan, early childhood education is a big deal, with government-maintained quality standards and a national curriculum for both daycares and kindergarten. And in France, where preschool is fully funded by the government and operated by the Ministry of Education beginning at age 3, nearly 100 percent of children attend.

Why bother investing in early childhood care? Although there's the obvious fact that affordable child care is necessary for parents (and particularly women) to work outside the home, there are also important benefits to high-quality care, particularly for low-income kids. According to American Progress, low-income children "show higher rates of academic failure and an increased probability of grade retention," and are also more likely to drop out of high school. But even though those outcomes might not be apparent when they are young, the Economic Policy Institute found that the achievement gap between low-income and high-income kids actually forms between the ages of birth to age 5. After age 5, disadvantaged kids are more likely to lag behind their peers. And, unfortunately, are also more likely to stay there as they age.

Of course, there's no question that affordable child care and paid parental leave is crucial, and the truth is that any improvement would still make a difference. But in the discussion about child care reform, cost can't be the only concern. To truly make a difference, quality also has to be a priority.