States Have a Major Stake in Expanding Child Care and Pre-K
By Olivia Golden, Executive Director, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
The major improvements to child care in the Build Back Better Act (BBB) respond to the long-simmering child care crisis in the U.S., brought to a full boil by the devastating impact of the pandemic and recession. Once passed by Congress and signed into law, Build Back Better will be game-changing for a sector that has been unaffordable and in a constant struggle to survive for far too long.
The legislation responds to the crisis by sharply reducing the cost of child care for almost all families with young children, increasing salaries for child care workers who cannot make ends meet, and increasing the supply of quality care for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. The bill invests in state pre-kindergarten programs, too, by providing funding to expand the reach and improve the quality of state programs. Together, these investments will support children, families, and early childhood educators, while helping millions of women who have left the workforce return to their jobs.
Making these changes real depends on the crucial roles of both federal and state governments. This is nothing new. Since the inception of U.S. child care subsidy programs, making care affordable for families and supporting providers to offer quality programs have always been a joint federal-state responsibility. The federal government has provided the bulk of funding for the programs, with states contributing funds and operating programs under a broad federal framework. State preschool programs, on the other hand, are largely state-financed and operated, so direct federal funding will be new and will offer states the opportunity to greatly expand programs they have developed for decades.
But despite this long history and the substantial increases in federal funding included in BBB, critics are suggesting the whole purpose of the legislation could be foiled if large numbers of states fail to seize this opportunity — that is, if they refuse to use billions of new federal dollars to restore their economies, reduce costs for almost all families with young children, and help the child care sector recover. It has also been suggested that if states fail to take this opportunity, the fault is in the legislation, rather than pointing blame at policymakers who would leave generous investments in children on the table.
Let’s look at the evidence. First, what about cost to states? All 50 states participate in today’s Child Care and Development Block grant (CCDBG), which requires state match and administrative support. Forty-five have state-funded pre-kindergarten, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.
For both programs, BBB offers far better incentives. States won’t have any match at all for the first three years of the expanded child care program and they’ll get 90 percent federal funding for serving children and raising wages after the first three years.
For pre-k, states will continue to receive federal funds in the fourth year by putting up a modest 10 percent match that increases to 25 percent and then 40 percent. States will have to put up some state resources, but they will get back enormous federal investment in their economies.
But maybe the problem isn’t money. What about the argument that implementing BBB will just be too hard? It isn’t easy to transform a system that has failed for so many years, but states are getting started on child care already, even before BBB passes. That’s because last spring’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) gives them dollars to get started — an on-ramp to the hard work ahead.
Thanks, to ARPA funding, some states are already broadening eligibility for children, like New Mexico, by raising the income limits significantly to reach, middle-class families who couldn’t afford child care. Others, like Connecticut, Georgia, and Maine, have developed the systems they need to get help directly to large numbers of child care providers, to support wage increases and other components of improved quality.
But what if states resist implementing child care not because of money or operational challenges but just for political reasons? That would be a huge mistake, because states that refuse the resources will be sabotaging their own economic recovery. The child care and pre-k provisions offer an infusion of billions of dollars in federal resources that will pay off directly for state economies — by putting dollars in families’ pockets and, as business leaders are pointing out across the country right now, by removing a huge barrier to hiring. Building up child care as part of state economic recovery means that millions of women who have left the workforce will be able to return to work.
If there are states that refuse what is clearly a good deal for their economies and residents, Congress has included a back-up provision to ensure families can still benefit from the investment. The back-up provision allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to grant resources directly to localities and local programs in those states that opt out, as well as to expand Head Start programs. These provisions are important because they will offer some help to families and some providers despite their state’s poor choice — but they are by far a second choice to full, statewide implementation.
Every state should seize the opportunity to build their economy through the Build Back Better investment in child care and pre-k. Organizers, advocates, parents, providers, the business community, and the broader public in every state should offer support — but also hold states accountable for the right decision. Affordable, high-quality child care and pre-kindergarten are an indisputable gain for children, families, and our economy — and now, for the first time, it may also be in reach.
Olivia Golden, Executive Director, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)