TPM Cafe: Opinion

Just Three States Meet National Recommendations For Child Care

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AP Photo

Guevara is not alone. The average cost for two children to go to a child care center is greater than the median rent in every state. And costs continue to rise. For low-income families, these costs can be devastating--and assistance is often limited, or completely unavailable. According to a state-by-state report released today by the National Women's Law Center, families in 27 states are better off under one or more child care policies in 2013 than in 2012, but lost ground in nearly half the states. Although policies showed improvement this past year, the data is still sobering: just three states meet the federally recommended benchmark for payment rates for child care providers, which limits families' child care options. And in many states, long waiting lists prevent low-income families from receiving any help paying for care.

We hear from low-income parents like Guevara who are struggling to pay for child care. Recently we learned of a single mother working full-time who's on a waiting list for child care assistance in the Midwest. Her estimated wait is two years. Others describe cutting back on food, skipping trips to the doctor and falling behind on rent to try to meet child care expenses. Mothers improvise make-shift child care with neighbors and family members pitching in. When these arrangements fall through, parents scramble to fill in the gaps. Some have had no choice but to keep an older child home from school periodically to care for younger siblings, in order to keep their jobs. Unemployed parents describe the precarious balancing act of going on job interviews without a safety net of child care assistance. One mother described her anguish at canceling a job interview when she couldn't find anyone to care for her two young children.

We also hear positive stories of families who have good-quality child care because they get financial assistance. They're able to concentrate at work knowing their children are safe and thriving in a learning environment. But too many families lack the help they need to get safe, reliable and affordable child care and gain a financial footing. We can do better.

And that's why the Center supports President Obama's early education initiative, which would expand high-quality early learning opportunities for children--from birth through age three--by increasing investments to expand the availability and strengthen the quality of child care and Early Head Start. The President's blueprint also would provide low- and moderate-income four-year-old children with high-quality preschool.

Less than a third of four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality public or private preschool. Millions of children are losing out on the chance to succeed simply because of their economic background or where they happen to live. Studies show that without a strong start, students are at greater risk of performing poorly in school, dropping out, making poor choices that affect their health and future, and failing to become productive adults. Those poor outcomes are costing the country money.

The stakes for children and the entire country are too high to put this initiative on hold. Let's get behind it and give children the opportunity to learn and develop the skills they need to succeed in school and in life, provide parents the support and reassurance they need to work, and enable our nation to prosper both now and in the future.

Blank is director of child care and early learning for the National Women's Law Center.

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