Stop the presses: Congress actually passed a bill last week. An overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress voted to reauthorize the Child Care and Dependent Block Grant program, a $5 billion fund for the states to subsidize the cost of childcare for low-income families, which President Obama is expected to sign. And in the process, it patched some glaring holes in our childcare system to make it a little better and safer.
Calling what we have a childcare “system” is frankly too generous. What we have in much of the country is a lightly regulated mess. In a highly-regarded piece last year called “The Hell of American Daycare,” Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic exposed the neglectful patchwork of state under-regulation that led a tragic fire at a home daycare in Texas.
“Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot,” Cohn explained. “But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.”
Some states require hardly any training for daycare providers in health, safety, and child development. As the Center for American Progress has noted, only 13 states even require background checks for workers at daycare centers—and four states don’t even screen for sex abuse history. Sixteen states permit teachers without a high school degree or G.E.D. to lead a daycare center.
Despite lackluster quality, daycare costs continue to soar. Average annual childcare costs are nearly $8,000. For families earning less than $18,000, the rising cost of childcare has consumes a prohibitive 39 percent of monthly income. Researchers believe this has led to a recent uptick in the number of stay-at-home moms, as the prospective cost of childcare leaves little net gain from working.
There are two federal programs that attempt to ease this financial burden. The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit subsidizes some of the cost of childcare for families. It provides up to $1,050 per child for families earning below $15,000 a year, steadily decreasing to $600 for families earning over $43,000. However, it is nonrefundable, meaning any subsidy for low-income families’ childcare expenses is lost once their tax liability reaches zero.
The second program is a $5 billion annual block grant to the states to pay for childcare for low-income families. It was last authorized in 1996 as part of congressional welfare reform, but Congress had not previously attached strings to the grant to promote childcare quality.
Until now. When Congress reauthorized the CCDBG program, it attached important regulatory conditions addressing some of the hellish problems plaguing American daycare. If states want funding, their daycare centers must now run background checks on all employees. Providers must be trained in first aid, safe sleep practices, emergency preparedness, and avoiding shaken baby syndrome. And states must conduct annual random inspections of each daycare facility, publicizing the results online — a major improvement given that states like California and Iowa had been conducting inspections only once every five years.
These are significant reforms that ought to improve the quality of care across the country. They bring some uniformity to what had been a wildly disparate field of state regulations, bringing into the twenty-first century the places where 11 million children under the age of 5 spend most of their days.
But there’s still much more to be done. Though the reauthorization increases CCDBG funding somewhat over the next six years, it remains an underfunded program. It serves only one out of six eligible families, leaving long waiting lists for vouchers and subsidized daycare seats in many states.
Low-income families who aren’t lucky enough to get subsidized spots continue to pay out larger shares of their income for worse care. And a $600 tax credit for middle-class families is a relative drop in the bucket, enough to cover only about a month of childcare costs for the average family. It’s a drag on our economy when parents can’t justify working in the face of expensive childcare.
Still, it’s heartening to see Congress responding to an under-noticed national crisis. Reauthorizing the CCDBG with conditions to improve quality was the right thing to do. Perhaps going forward, the bipartisan coalition behind the reauthorization will push for more support for working families in order to expand childcare access and affordability.