The State of America's Children® 2020

Early Childhood

>>>The State of America’s Children 2020 – Early Childhood
The State of America’s Children 2020 – Early Childhood2021-05-03T21:13:49-05:00

Too Many Children Lack Affordable High-Quality Care



Well before their third child, Micah, was even born, Brandi and Jermaine Walker had begun to plan for his child care. The Walkers live in the District of Columbia, which has some of the highest child care costs in the country. “[We were told] a good amount was $1,600 a month,” explained Brandi. “And we don’t have an extra $1,600 sitting around.” They became one of a growing number of families forced to cobble together a patchwork system of child care. Jermaine works from home three days a week and Brandi works from home one. Even with an uncovered day, having flexibility to work from home means the Walkers are fortunate. People who work in less flexible jobs, especially those who do shift work, face even fewer options in a city where the average cost of child care is $24,000 per child per year.1

The first five years of a child’s life are a time of great opportunity as well as great risk. During this period, children’s brains develop more rapidly than at any other point and the foundation for their future success depends on the actions of parents and other caregivers. Children who grow up in supportive environments are more likely to develop self-confidence, an increased desire to learn and better impulse control as well as improved achievement in school and throughout their life.2 Unfortunately the odds are stacked against the more than 4 million children under 6 living in poverty who often face unsafe and stressful environments where their physical and emotional needs are not met.3

Young children need a full continuum of quality early childhood opportunities so their brains can develop properly. High-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities from birth to age 5 have been proven to mitigate the negative impacts of poverty and other stressors and yield positive returns.

  • Nobel Prize Winner in Economics James Heckman estimates a lifelong return on investments in quality early childhood programs of more than 13 percent a year for every dollar invested.4 ­­His research shows that the earlier a child can be reached with developmentally-appropriate programs, the greater their impact on child development.
  • Studies show children who experience high-quality early childhood programs are more likely to graduate from high school, hold a job and make more money and are less likely to commit a crime than peers who do not.5
  • The Abbott Preschool program serving children in low-income communities in New Jersey was found to decrease grade retention and special education placement rates and increase achievement in literacy, math and science through fifth grade.6 Other studies of large preschool programs in Boston and Tulsa have shown similarly positive results.7
  • Voluntary, evidence-based home visiting programs provide impressive short- and long-term gains for children and families who participate. However, in FY2018, the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) served only a small portion of at-risk parents and children across the country.8

High-quality, affordable child care that meets children’s developmental needs is essential for working families. However, the cost of high-quality child care is a barrier for many.

  • Center-based infant care cost more than public college tuition in 30 states and the District of Columbia in 2018 (see Table 18). In one study, child care costs exceeded rent for 81 percent of two-parent, two-child families surveyed.9
  • The Child Care and Development Fund, which provides subsidies to help families with child care costs, currently serves just 15 percent of all federally-eligible children.10
  • The number of children receiving publicly-funded child care subsidies has decreased by more than 430,000 since 2006 (see Table 19). Access to high-quality child care is not guaranteed even for families who do receive subsidies.11
  • A well-trained, well-compensated workforce is necessary to ensure children receive high quality child care; however, child care workers were paid less than parking lot attendants in 30 states in 2015 (see Table 20).

Many existing preschool and kindergarten programs are effective, but fall short of serving and supporting all children in need.

  • Early Head Start and Head Start—federally-funded high-quality early childhood programs—provide comprehensive services including child care, mental health, nutritional and other developmental services and connect poor children and families with other community resources when needed. Due to underfunding, however, Early Head Start served only 8 percent of eligible infants and toddlers and Head Start served only 50 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in 2018.12
  • Other quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds are also a key part of the continuum. Yet, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), only 33 percent of 4-year-olds and 6 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program during the 2017-2018 school year. Of the 43 states and the District of Columbia that invested in state-funded preschool, only three operated a program that met all 10 of NIEER’s evidence-based quality standards (see Table 17).
  • While total state funding for preschool increased by 3.6 percent during the 2017-2018 school year, average funding per child decreased when adjusted for inflation. More work is needed to ensure all children, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, have access to high quality preschool.13
  • Full-day kindergarten fosters continued learning and ensures children do not miss a half step as they start school. Although 90 percent of 5-year-olds in kindergarten are enrolled in a full-day program, access to full-day kindergarten is only guaranteed by statute in 14 states and the District of Columbia.14 Studies show students in full-day kindergarten programs have better academic outcomes than their peers in half-day programs.15

Providing children a head start is necessary for successful passage to adulthood. We must ensure every child—regardless of race, gender or income—has access to a continuum of high quality, comprehensive early childhood opportunities starting at birth.

Immigrant Children are America’s Children: Early Childhood

Family detention—the practice of holding children and their parents in government detention centers until the parents’ immigration cases have been resolved—has ballooned in recent years with no end in sight, with family detention capacity increasing by 3,400 percent between 2001 and 2016.16 This is despite the fact that the research on detention and children is clear: Even a short amount of time in detention is profoundly harmful for children of any age, and it is particularly harmful to young children whose physical and social environments have a significant impact on their development and later well-being.17

Sending young children to detention facilities, even when accompanied by their parents, is corrosive to their health and development. A baby’s brain is tremendously active, making more than one million neural connections every second and growing faster than at any point later in life.18 These neural connections are shaped by environment and by stress. Persistent stress and unrelenting exposure to fear can cause “toxic stress” and interfere with the physical brain development of a child.19 Detention facilities are simply not an appropriate place for children.