The U.S. lags the world on providing child care

While on paternity leave, I spent countless hours on the phone, calling insurance companies, local and state government agencies, social workers and help lines. I spent hours listening to classical music on hold until “the next available operator could assist.” Often at the end of the call there was another number to call or someone who only had the same questions I had about how to access care and support.

Even though I was lucky to have the cushion of paid parental leave and health insurance, the level of frustration — and at times despair — was overwhelming.

Now, nearly eight months into my son’s wonderful life, he has benefitted from some incredible early intervention support, but all the services he is eligible to apply for are still not in place.

Despite a career as a child rights and education advocate, mainly focused outside the U.S., it took being a new parent to realize how serious our country’s own problems are with early childhood care and development.

There is no coordinated, comprehensive, reliable system proactively working for American children to be their best selves in those crucial first five years of life when so much brain development takes place.

The challenges and injustices I witnessed with my son’s experience inspired me to start look more closely at the numbers. They are shocking. Theirworld, the children’s charity I lead, has commissioned research which found that more than one in four parents (27%) in the U.S. have either quit a job or dropped out of education to avoid the soaring cost of childcare, while 59% said their childcare costs had risen in the previous six months.

The problem is also generational: the same survey showed that 42% of Gen-Z parents were spending 30% to 70% of their income on childcare alone.

It’s no wonder. In 2019, the U.S. ranked 34th out of 38 in a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development of countries’ spending on the early years as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

Lower-income or more marginalized families face compounding challenges that endanger their children’s enjoyment of a productive start to life. In the U.S., one in six children under 5 are poor, the highest rate of any age group. The number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) increased by 82% nationally from 2010 to 2017, according to National Institutes of Health data.

We do at least know what works for newborns and our youngest children. There is long-established evidence from projects in the U.S. and around the world. And there is an abundance of research to show that early years investment is beneficial to the economy and would create thousands of new jobs.

What is required now is the prioritization and coordination at all levels of government — local, state and federal — to deliver the programs, people and public spending necessary to provide every child with the best start in life. Canada has introduced a nationwide plan to reduce childcare costs to C$10 a day by 2026. Other countries are moving in the same direction.

Here are three proposals that could have a transformative effect on the care and education of America’s youngest children.

  • States should over five years implement universal pre-K starting at grade three by investing in quality service providers so that every child who wants a space in a quality preschool has it.

  • State and federal government should team up to expand childcare courses through the community college system, encourage the certification of caregivers, and provide support and tax incentives through the Small Business Association for people setting up and running high quality early years centers.

  • Parents would contribute $15 a day, matched by both federal and state governments — a similar approach to Canada’s. A care center run for 12 months a year would generate $108,000 in income for accommodating 10 children. The $3,600-a-year from both federal and state expenditure per child will pay dividends in future returns if the centers truly deliver local, quality care.

Theirworld will be raising our concerns about what is a global early years crisis during the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. But going global also means raising our voices in our local communities and demanding the change our children deserve.

Imagine how different our country could be if the more than 30 million children expected to be born over the next 10 years benefitted from the whole package of support: quality prenatal support, a healthy birth, family support, effective health interventions, and quality preschool. It would make a world of difference.

Van Fleet is president of Theirworld and executive director of the Global Business Coalition for Education.

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