PICTURE THIS: “YOU HAVE JUST ENTERED a room with 12 two-year-olds in it. Three are using a chair as a drum. Two are taking turns snatching a stuffed teddy bear from each other, and whoever isn’t holding the teddy bear is crying. Two more are quietly looking at books while another is scribbling in one with a black crayon. One has just had an accident in his ‘big boy pants’ and you can smell it from where you’re standing. Two are building a block tower that is about to fall on top of the one playing with a toy car.”
Now add to the picture that you are the child care worker with the group during this critical age in their lives when their skills and perception that will last for the rest of their lives are being formed. And for the next eight hours, in addition to keeping them safe, fed and clean, you are expected to organize art projects and reading time, spend one-on-one time with each child, and engage in other activities that are essential for them to develop emotionally and learn basic pre-academic skills. And for all this you will be paid the poverty wage of $9.77 an hour, the national average for child care workers. Would you stay on this job?
New Report Offers Critical Picture
This critical picture of early child care in America was recently highlighted in great detail in a series produced by The Hechinger Report and Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project. In several articles posted online and reported in Slate. According to the report, last year while “62 percent of two-year-olds had working mothers” which means that they are cared for by others for at least part of the day, there are no
clear guidelines on developmentally appropriate learning strategies for children from birth to age three in all but six states.
For many families with two-year-olds, the most challenging task is “the difficulty of finding safe, high-quality child care in a country that offers parents limited choices of questionable quality and little guidance on how to make those choices.”
High-quality child care, where it is available, is expensive. While families with higher incomes can afford it, it is “prohibitively expensive for the middle class.” As a result, about half of working parents leave their young children in unregulated informal care, mostly with grandmothers or other relatives and others with unlicensed baby sitters. Even in high-quality child care centers, the low pay for workers with qualified training results in a very high turnover in personnel. As a result, the Hechinger Report declares, quoting the national organization Zero to Three, “hundreds of thousands of young children of all income levels are spending much of their days in insufficient or even unsafe conditions while their parents work; 75 percent of infants in child care centers and 93 percent in home-based care are in low or mediocre-quality care settings.
Affordable Care Gap Is Real and Growing
And the current political picture does very little to change the situation. The child care tax credit can only apply to a maximum of two children per family and the largest possible benefit for a family is $2,100, only a tiny fraction of the cost of good child care. As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to increase it but this was not included in his latest budget proposal or in the proposed budgets in either house of Congress. But, as Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, notes, “changing the tax code alone will not close the gap. It will take a sustained investment from the public sector to bring to scale young kids having access to high-quality early learning.”
The gap is real and growing. The United States spends less proportionally on its early care than virtually every other advanced industrial country. Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman has repeatedly pointed out that the cost of neglect in the area of early childhood is not only the tragedy of the individual family but has disastrous consequences down the line for society as a whole. Giving infants and toddlers a positive early start in life is a vital ingredient for the future well-being of the nation. “The more a society spends on its youngest citizens,” the Hechinger Report, citing Heckman, declares, “the more it earns back over time by helping prepare kids for self-sufficient lives in adulthood. Economists’ estimates of the actual return ranges from $3 to $16 in savings on public services and revenue from income taxes for every dollar spent on early childhood education.”