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The Fundamental Role of Child Care in Supporting Women

Resource April 2, 2024

Last month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) published a new report, “Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy.” Aligning with Women’s History Month, this “playbook” provides a collection of policy recommendations to promote economic prosperity for women.

The report includes a chapter on child care, which emphasizes its fundamental role in boosting the participation of women, specifically mothers, in the labor force. It also highlights challenges within the early care and education (ECE) system and offers recommendations to policymakers at both the federal and state levels to build an ECE system that better supports young children and their families. 

CAP highlights four specific problems families face when trying to access child care: affordability, accessibility, workforce challenges, and the lack of public investment in child care programs.

  • Affordability: Child care is unaffordable for many American families. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) considers care to be affordable when it amounts to seven percent of a family’s income. However, because of these high costs, many low-income families spend more than one-third of their income on child care. 
  • Accessibility: Even those who can afford child care may still have difficulty enrolling their children because more than half of the U.S. population lives in a child care desert, a census tract where there are three or more children for each available licensed child care slot. 
  • Workforce Challenges: Despite the fact child care is so expensive, child care workers remain one of the lowest-paid occupations in the United States, making it hard to attract and retain a strong workforce. This labor force is overwhelmingly composed of women and, disproportionately, women of color. 
  • Underinvestment in Federal Child Care Programs: Key federally-funded ECE programs, such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start are insufficiently funded, and are unable to meet the needs of many eligible children and families. At current funding levels, less than 15 percent of children eligible for a CCDBG subsidy receive assistance, only 36 percent of eligible three-to five-year-olds are served by Head Start, and just 11 percent of eligible infants and toddlers are served by Early Head Start.

The Economic Benefits of Child Care

Child care is an integral pillar to supporting a thriving economy. However, because many families can’t find or afford child care, they end up having to cut their work hours or drop out of the workforce entirely. This particularly affects mothers, as there is a strong correlation between child care availability and the percentage of mothers who participate in the workforce. One estimate suggests that this costs the U.S. economy $122 billion dollars from forgone earnings, lowered productivity, and lost tax revenue per year. The costs of leaving the workforce, even temporarily, can harm mothers financially for years.

Nearly 60 percent of parents who are not working full-time say they would choose full-time work if they had access to affordable, quality child care. 

Policy Recommendations

To build the supply of quality child care, help families access and afford child care, and support a well-compensated, qualified workforce, CAP offers several federal and state policy recommendations.

Federal Policy Recommendations:

  • Pass the Child Care for Working Families Act, legislation that lowers the cost of child care by providing no-cost care for families making 85 percent of the state median while capping costs at seven percent of income for those earning above that threshold. The act also addresses the supply side of the crisis by providing grants to states that will support higher wages and better benefits for child care workers. 
  • Invest in the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), a bedrock program with strong bipartisan support provides federal funding to states for child care subsidies for low-income families with children under age 13. Due to limited federal funding, the program is currently unable to provide many eligible families with the child care support they need. 
  • Build out the supply of child care, to address the Americans who live in child care deserts. Increasing compensation and benefits for child care workers, as well as providing access to capital for formal child care providers’ startup or expansion costs is important. 
  • Support progressive work-family policies like paid family and medical leave to help support parents in balancing home and work life. 

State Policy Recommendations

  • Improve reimbursement rates for subsidy programs, including CCDBG. CCDBG does not compensate providers at rates that align with the true cost of providing child care. At times, this means that providers who accept these federal subsidies serve families at a financial loss. (Check out FFYF’s FAQ on provider reimbursement rates here.)
  • Support early educators’ economic security by increasing compensation and other benefits. This, in turn, will sustain and rebuild the child care workforce. 
  • Establish grants to expand the supply of care. States should focus on expanding child care in geographic areas with insufficient slots, while providing the technical assistance needed for a provider to start or expand their business. 

The lack of affordable and accessible child care hinders women’s ability to participate in the workforce and succeed in their jobs. Many parents, mothers in particular, have to leave their jobs entirely, reduce their hours, or pass up career advancement opportunities. Investing in child care is an investment in our nation’s economic resilience and the well-being of working families.

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