Low-income families depending on federal child-care support got a boost last week when the GOP-controlled House passed a bill requiring better quality control and more clear eligibility guidelines.
That the House did pass the bill is partly smart politics as House members on both sides of the aisle wanted a success to bring home to their districts. But experts also say the bill’s passage reflects a newly deepened consensus on the urgency of early childhood day care and education as a means of combatting poverty.
While the new House bill does provide for some additional funding, the program serves 1.4 million children but still falls far short of being able to reach all those who are eligible. Current estimates are that only one in six eligible low-income families is being served by the program, and 19 states have waiting lists or have frozen intake, said Katie Hamm, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.
Originally passed in 1996, the Child Care and Development Block Grant expired in 2002 and for the last 12 years has been on temporary status awaiting a consensus on an update.
The new law will require states to more carefully monitor safety and health at day-care centers funded by the grants and perform background checks on child-care workers. It will also clarify eligibility, removing confusions in the law that led to children being removed from the program, said Hamm.
“The bill was viewed as common sense and low cost,” said Nick Vucic, senior government affairs associate for Childcare Aware of America, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia. “Everyone agreed that there should be some baseline of minimum protections for those who put their children in child care.”
There were several minor changes made in the House bill from the Senate bill passed in March, Vucic said, but none of them was an ideological compromise. All were simply tweaking the legislation to make it more effective, and the Senate readily agreed to the changes.
The Senate bill passed 96-2, with only Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn dissenting. It passed on a voice vote in the House, with minor amendments.
“I cannot express how heartened we were by not only how both parties worked together, but how both chambers worked together on this,” Vucic said.
Under current law, Hamm said, some states exempted many child-care providers from oversight. Others were monitored as infrequently as every five years.
The new bill also changes eligibility so states now only have to recertify low-income parents once a year. Under current law, Hamm said, many kids spent as little as three to seven months in the program, partly because states were unsure about the rules and partly because they were shuffling parents on and off coverage to spread scarce resources more thinly.
“That doesn’t help the parent or the child,” Hamm said.
Hamm argues that this consensus on making child care safer is only the first step, the next step being to make it more accessible and improve its quality. “It’s an iterative process,” Hamm said. “This bill falls short of where we would like to be, but we view this as a good first and necessary step.
“Based on what we know about how kids develop,” Hamm said, “we need to make sure it’s not just safe, but nurturing and helping them gain skills they need to start school and kindergarten and be successful.”
The urgency of expanded child care for low-income families, said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, lies in the need to get higher quality interaction between adults and small children in the critical early years of life.
Because child care is expensive, costing between $6,000 and $10,000 a year per child, many low-income families try to leave their kids with grandparents or try to juggle their schedules. Or they simply stay out of the workforce altogether.
Mathur acknowledges that many low-income parents who do enter the workforce will earn near minimum wage at fast-food restaurants, and for many at very low wages the economics of child care make it economically infeasible to work at all.
A single mother with two children out of the labor market will find it harder and harder to re-enter the job force, Mathur said, while at the same time being caught in a cycle of social isolation.
“Most low-income opt not to use commercial day-care centers,” Mathur said. “But the research suggests that children benefit from commercial day care, as opposed to being left in the informal care of relatives, which is why we want to subsidize access to those centers.”
There is a subtle shift in focus in Mathur’s analysis, moving from how to help an isolated low-income single mother get a job to the social benefits for her and learning benefits for her child.
“I think the two issues are linked,” Mathur said. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a breakdown in the traditional family and the growth of single mothers. You want that woman to be in the labor market, but day care is so expensive that they can’t make that choice.”