The blog of the Urban Institute
February 22, 2019

Warren’s plan for universal child care—and any other plan—should address these challenges

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently proposed a plan for universal child care and early education as part of her 2020 presidential campaign. The plan may be the first of many such plans in a crowded field of candidates.

Warren’s plan seeks to expand access to high-quality care by creating local networks of licensed child care centers, preschool programs, and family child care homes that are held to national standards of high quality. The plan would make child care in those settings free for families below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, while families with higher incomes would pay a subsidized fee based on their income. No family would pay more than 7 percent of their income.

Tackling the complicated issue of child care is no easy feat. Based on evidence of child care supply and demand, we identified four often-overlooked issues that any major policy proposal around expanding access to child care should consider.

1. Improving quality and supply will take time and resources.

The current supply of high-quality child care programs cannot meet the demand, so expanding these programs quickly will be a challenge. When we analyzed the supply of child care in multiple counties in Illinois and New York, including licensed centers and homes, we found few programs were accredited or were participating in quality improvement activities.

Quality rating and improvement systems were underresourced to include all providers and support them in their quality improvement plans. Even among Head Start programs held to national performance standards, program quality varies widely. Expanding the supply of programs will involve infrastructure investments, start-up costs, and other funding to meet the demand.

2. The child care workforce is diverse.  

An expanded system will require a larger child care workforce that is well trained. The current workforce is diverse, and most workers do not have a degree. While education requirements can help ensure high-quality care, they may reduce this diversity.

Going back to school to obtain a degree can be challenging for low-wage workers who face significant financial and family constraints, and can take years. Efforts to improve child care access and quality should consider ways of maintaining workforce diversity while improving quality. DC is one of the first cities to require degrees for child care providers and could offer lessons for others.

Adequate compensation is also critical to attract and retain qualified staff. Degreed early childhood educators are often attracted to the public school system because of the disparity in wages, benefits, and opportunity for advancement. In the DC region, child care workers earn approximately $15 an hour, on average, considerably less than public school kindergarten teachers.

Even entry-level public school teachers with no experience and no education beyond a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $27 an hour. Warren’s plan cites the military child care system as a model. This is partly because it has a progressive cost structure (sliding-scale payment). But another important feature is that employees in this system are compensated like other government workers, which includes a salary, benefits, and a career ladder tied to wage increases.

In any plan for universal child care, some providers will likely be left out because they are not licensed (including faith-based and part-day nursery school programs, in-home relative or nanny care), or they are licensed but do not meet quality benchmarks. How will that affect parental choice?  

3. Parent choice is important.

Parents must weigh many factors when making child care choices. It’s not as simple as walking to the closest program flagged as “high quality.” Certain parents have complex needs, including those working nontraditional hours and those with children with special needs. Families living in rural areas rely on home-based care options because of a lack of centers, while parents with infants and nontraditional work schedules may prefer children to be in the care of a trusted relative or caregiver in the home.  

To ensure access for these families, and for others for whom centers may not be a viable option, it’s important that any plan include a broad range of center-based and home-based settings.

Illustrating this need, jobs across the country require employees to work beyond a traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Our research in DC found that the most common industries are retail, entertainment, hospitality, and food service. This includes hotel staff, restaurant workers, and store clerks.

About 19,000 children in DC have parents working nontraditional hours; one-third of them work in one of those industries. The unmet need is greatest during early morning hours and on weekends. Parents often choose family, friends, and neighbors to care for children during nontraditional hours. Parents may prefer these arrangements, but other parents have no alternative options.

Under the current Child Care and Development Fund system, parents can choose the provider, including a relative or, if they meet basic quality standards, an unlicensed nonrelative. Publicly funded Head Start and state prekindergarten programs already serve a large share of low-income preschoolers but may operate only part day and on a school-year cycle. Children in these programs often need a second care arrangement to cover hours when parents are working.

Any plan must consider and support parents’ diverse needs for child care. 

4. Child care also supports parents in school or training.

Child care provides a safe and educational care environment for the child and relieves parents of care responsibilities while they work or engage in school or training. Some nonworking parents also enroll children in early learning programs to promote their academic development and social skills. Any child care plan should acknowledge these multiple goals.

In the current system, parents seeking child care to support education and training can be a lower priority for services than are parents who are employed, even though education is often critical to helping parents advance their careers and boost their income. Some private child care programs give priority to working parents or even require parents to be working.

In contrast, publicly funded Head Start and state prekindergarten programs do not consider parental employment as an eligibility factor like child care subsidies. If providers in a universal child care system must prioritize enrollment because of high demand, the needs of parents in school and training should be made a priority as well. 

Research shows that high-quality, stable early care and education experiences are critical for children’s long-term health and development, especially for low-income children. For many parents, the high cost of care creates challenges to working or completing their education to ensure long-term economic well-being.

Expanding access to affordable, safe, and high-quality care for all children is a worthy goal for presidential candidates, as long as they address key issues such as ensuring quality and meeting the needs of diverse parents and educators.

A daycare class walking in a public park in Boston Common. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images).

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.