In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass closure of schools and child care facilities, the child care crisis has been brought to the fore of public awareness. As of April 2022, child care and other care jobs are still 12 percent below pre-COVID levels, while total jobs have almost fully recovered (1 percent below). Yet, deficiencies in child care infrastructure, like high costs and unequal access, have been affecting children and parents since well before the pandemic.

Last month, researchers, policymakers, and advocates came together for the U.S. Care Infrastructure Conference—a collaboration between IWPR, American University’s Program on Gender Analysis in Economics, and the Carework Network—to take stock of critical issues and policy needs to improve the care economy as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. One workshop focused specifically on challenges and learnings from approaches to child care across states. With insights from across both liberal and conservative states, panelists weighed in and pointed to the proposals in the Build Back Better Act—such as universal Pre-K, capping child care expenses for families at 7 percent of household income, and expanding the Child Tax Credit—and how these might help to address the child care crisis across the U.S.

The availability of child care has been on the decline over the last two decades, as costs for these services climbed, explained Elliot Haspel of the Robins Foundation. This is a trend that only accelerated during the COVID pandemic. This “ugly new normal” of persistent staffing shortages in child care facilities comes as the costs of child care have significantly outpaced overall inflation and other household expenses such as food and housing. With sufficient funding, Haspel said, states could serve as laboratories to test and create innovative solutions to support a strong, sustainable child care infrastructure at the local level. There is a need for more “proactive systems,” Elliot explained. “Systems that are there to help—which is sort of the shift in a mindset [from] child care as welfare, to child care as a [basic] right, the way we think of public education.”

Unfortunately, subsidies currently fall short of actual child care costs because annual increases in federal and state spending have not kept up with growing demand, said Alycia Hardy of the Center for Law and Social Policy. The majority of child care subsidies come from the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which provides federal funding to states for low-income families with children under age 13. The Grant allows states the flexibility to decide how funds are invested and the eligibility criteria for assistance. However, only one in seven eligible children receive subsidies from CCDBG. The Build Back Better framework sought to ensure that existing child care subsidies were sustainable and equitable by investing in the care facilities, raising worker pay, reducing economic barriers that uphold racial inequity, and providing entitlement funding—all issues that remain in the backdrop while the fate of social infrastructure spending remains uncertain.

For many parents, the access to child care can mean the difference between returning to work, or not. A recent statewide survey of parents in Ohio revealed parents’ need for child care is motivated by the desire to work. According to Shannon Jones of Groundwork Ohio, “60 percent of non-working or part-time working moms with children under 5 in Ohio would go back to work or work more hours if they had access to quality child care at a reasonable cost.” The same survey found that 76 percent of child care centers are experiencing a staffing shortage and that low wages are the most common reason for educators leaving the field and present the biggest recruitment challenge.

Access to affordable child care also has lasting impacts on childhood poverty and maternal lifetime earnings. According to research shared by Robert Hartley from the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy, eliminating child care expenses would decrease the share of children living in poverty from 11 to 7.4 percent and increase earnings for women with two children an average of $97K over a lifetime. Subsidized child care allows mothers to work more and spend less, resulting in greater savings for retirement and improved economic security later in life. Hartley’s long-run cost/benefit analysis finds that the benefits from child care subsidies to society would exceed the costs.

Building a strong child care infrastructure is necessary for a prosperous economy. It supports working parents while creating new jobs. The evidence on the impact of quality child care and early education is clear. Differences in how states approach child care and respond to the current care crisis provide important data points to inform efforts to build a well-functioning child care infrastructure for the future.