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How Much Would High-Quality, Universal Early Care Cost? Try $140 Billion a Year.

Childcare-Preschool-GETTY-blog.jpgMost early-childhood researchers have coalesced around the importance of high-quality child care and early-learning experiences for young children.

And in a new report released last month by a committee operating under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has put a price tag—$140 billion annually—on that care. 

That money, which would come from private sources, public investments and families, would pay for an early childhood system that employs professionals with college degrees who are earning a wage comparable with elementary school teachers, specially trained teachers to work with students with disabilities, ongoing professional development, improved facilities, and more.

It's a big ask. To put the number in perspective, the country currently spends about $29 billion from federal and state sources on early-childhood education and care. The $140 billion number adds up to about three-quarters of a percent of the United States' gross domestic product. That said, other industrialized nations spend about that much, or more, on child care and early education

A greater public investment would also mean more families would have access to high-quality care, said the committee report, titled Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education.The patchwork of insufficient funding sources currently leaves families below the federal poverty line—$24,300 for a family of four—paying about 20 percent of their income on child care. In contrast, families with incomes above five times the federal poverty line pay 6 percent of their income on child care. 

The committee's report based its numbers on switching that balance around. Very low-income families would pay nothing for care. A progressively higher contribution would be required as families go up the income ladder, but no family would pay more than 15 percent of its household income on child care and education.

The report also says that the early-childhood workforce needs more training, but shouldn't be asked to shoulder the cost, because their wages are often on par with fast-food workers. Increased education and time off for professional development should not come out of child-care workers salaries, the committee said.

Increased Funding Would Fix 'Urgent Situation'

The National Academies were chartered to provide independent analysis to the country on issues of import. The committee did not outline in its report a political path to this increased funding, though the report did say that it should be phased in over time.

"This is an urgent situation that we face, both for the sake of the children who need high-quality care and for the workforce that is under considerable stress, and needs our help to be well-compensated and to work in a supportive environment," said LaRue Allen, the chairwoman of the committee and a professor of applied psychology at New York University, during a Feb. 22 webinar announcing the report's release. Allen also directs the university's Child and Family Policy Center. 

"We want this to happen sooner rather than later, acknowledging that it can't happen overnight," she said. 

Lynn Karoly, a committee member and a senior economist at the Rand Corporation who focuses on early care and education, said during the webinar that the report explains why the substantial increase over current spending is needed. 

"We also acknowledge that this is a political decision-making process," Karoly said, and the committee was not in a position to dictate all the paths to increased funding that local, state, and federal lawmakers might take.

"Ultimately, we think the case can be made for that increase in investment," she said. "It's a matter of the will to make those commitments." 

Image by Getty

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