For years, advocates have been calling for reforms to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which hasn't been updated since 1996) to establish higher standards that states must follow in order to receive federal funding for child care. There is now a bipartisan effort in the Senate, led by Democrat Barbara Mikulski (MD) and Republican Richard Burr (NC), to reauthorize the legislation. Although more money for child-care subsidies is certainly needed, given the current budget constraints the senators are now focusing on lower-cost ways to improve care overall "It is absolutely crucial that we make a national commitment that safe and quality child care is available everywhere," Senator Burr said at a subcommittee hearing in July.
Such improvements are also the idea behind the federally funded Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which awarded $500 million dollars to nine states last December. The states will use the money, which will be given over four years, to fund their winning plans to improve early-learning programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Five runners-up are expected to share an additional $133 million.
It's not that we don't know how to provide high-quality, affordable care in this country. The Federal government already runs an enviable child-care system for military families. In 1989, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act, which required strict standards and oversight for all centers and day-care homes. Parents pay only a portion of the program's actual cost. However, none of the same requirements for civilian child care were included in CCDBG, which was originally enacted the following year.
Even given the current federal deficit, experts believe that spending more on child care is worth it. Research from Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, Ph.D., at the University of Chicago, for example, found that the return on investment can be as high as $16 for every dollar that goes into high-quality early-childhood programs, because kids in good care have less need of special education and public assistance, and are less likely to commit crimes.
There is limited financial help available for middle-income families, who can't qualify for state or federal assistance. Under the current law, the Dependent Care Tax Credit offsets a tiny fraction of the fees parents pay. As part of his Fiscal Year 2013 budget, President Obama proposed to increase the amount next year to 35 percent of qualified expenses, up to $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children in families making less than $75,000 per year. Parents may also be able to take advantage of Dependent Care Accounts offered by their employers, which allow them to put aside up to $5,000 pretax.
Clearly, there's no cheap, easy solution, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak up about the importance of the issue. "Imagine if all the child-care centers closed for a week. Everything would come to a screeching halt," says Denette. "But you don't hear people talking about us as if we're critical to the functioning of society."
We can expect to pay a high price if we pitch in to help cover the cost of better care for all—but an even higher price if we don't. "We have decided as a country to invest in other things that aren't giving us the same bang for the buck that early education will," says Dr. McCartney. "As a developmental psychologist, I care most about children's early learning and social development, but, ultimately, the crisis in child care is also going to affect our global competitiveness."