American families are currently less than two weeks away from the expiration of child care stabilization funding – what experts are calling a “child care cliff”— and there is no indication that policymakers in Washington intend to stop it. In fact, far from approving the emergency funding needed to prevent millions of families from losing critical access to care, House Republicans appear to be careening toward a federal government shutdown that would endanger even more critical safety net programs.

On September 30th, funding passed as part of the COVID-era American Rescue Plan (ARP) and intended to stabilize the child care industry, is set to expire. These federal funds played a crucial role in supporting access to child care throughout the country though, even with these investments, the U.S. child care infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. The expiration of this funding will have devastating impact on the availability of child care throughout the country: the Century Foundation estimates that, without immediate action to rectify the crisis, 3.2 million children will lose spots in child care programs, and more than 70,000 child care programs will be forced to close.

IWPR research has shown how critical child care access is for women’s economic stability, security, and well-being. Consistent and reliable child care helps women join or remain in the labor force, and access to care increases women’s lifetime earnings and retirement savings. Lack of care, or disruptions in care, can lead to parents – especially women – taking leave from work, losing productivity, or leaving the work force. Quality child care also prepares children for success later in life.

The funding authorized under the ARP has proven critical to supporting child care across the country. Nationally, data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services demonstrates that more than 80% of licensed child care providers received federal funds as part of the ARP Child Care Stabilization Program. Funds were most commonly used by child care centers to pay for personnel costs and raised wages, allowing them to keep programs staffed; and they were most commonly used by family child providers to pay rent, utilities, and related fees.

IWPR’s polling has underscored how important this issue is to Americans. According to polling IWPR conducted earlier this year with Morning Consult, the vast majority (73%) of adults want Congress to pass legislation expanding access to affordable, high-quality childcare and investing in early childhood education. Two out of three adults say that child care should be a priority for the federal government. These numbers were even higher among young (Millennial and Gen Z) respondents, as well as among Black and Hispanic respondents. In short: long before federal funding reached this crisis point, voters across the country looked to congressional leaders to take action.

Last week, a group of House and Senate Democrats introduced legislation to provide at least $16 billion in emergency child care spending. Unless Congress acts, our already-inadequate child care system will take a massive hit with the expiration of federal funds. Led by Senators Patty Murray and Bernie Sanders, as well as House Minority Whip Katherine Clark, the Child Care Stabilization Act would provide critical funds for the next five years, continuing the successful investment begun under the ARP and providing ongoing federal support for child care across the country. Passing this legislation would be a critical step toward averting a further crisis of child care access and maintaining the progress of recent years.