The State of America’s Children 2021 – Early Childhood2021-03-28T18:48:55-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021

Early Childhood

In 2019, center-based child care for an infant cost more than public college tuition in

The first five years of a child’s life are a time of both great opportunity and risk as their brain develops more rapidly than at any other point. 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.Unfortunately, COVID-19 has upended a system that was already not adequately serving children and families: even before the pandemic, children—especially the 3.6 million children under six living in poverty—lacked access to a meaningful continuum of care and supports during this critical period of development.2

A full continuum of high-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities from birth to age five have been proven to buffer the negative impacts of poverty and other stressors, improve outcomes throughout a child’s life, and yield great societal returns on investment.

  • Head Start and Early Head Start are federally-funded, high-quality early childhood programs that 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. Children who participate in the Head Start program are able to pay better attention in school and engage in learning; perform better in cognitive and language development; and have better pre-reading, pre-writing, and vocabulary skills making them more prepared for kindergarten and school.The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program similarly promotes child development and school readiness.Gaps in opportunity and outcomes based on race and income exist from the start of school, but access to high-quality early childhood programs can give children the skills they need to thrive in school and close these gaps.5
  • Studies show children who attend high-quality early childhood programs are more likely to graduate from high school and hold a job, make more money, and are less likely to have contact with the criminal justice system than peers who do not. Programs that directly target children’s health outcomes, like Head Start, have been shown to increase child health insurance, child immunization, and receipt of primary care.6
  • Research estimates the lifelong return on investment for quality early childhood programs is more than 13 percent a year for every dollar invested.7

High-quality, affordable child care that meets children’s developmental needs is a critical part of the early childhood continuum and essential for working families, but the cost of high-quality child care is a barrier for many.

  • Center-based child care for an infant cost more than public college tuition in 28 states and the District of Columbia in 2019 (see Table 17). In one study, more than 80 percent of two-child families were paying more for child care than for rent.8
  • The Child Care and Development Fund, which provides subsidies to help families with child care costs, served just 15 percent of all federally-eligible children in 2016.9
  • The number of children receiving publicly-funded child care subsidies has decreased by more than 430,000 since 2006 (see Table 18). Access to high-quality child care is not guaranteed even for families who do receive subsidies as care costs increase.10
  • A well-trained, competitively-compensated workforce is necessary to ensure the child care provided is high-quality and our children are supported during their most critical years of development. However, in 2019, child care workers in 42 states were paid less than half of a living wage for a single parent with one child (see Table 19).

While many existing early childhood development and education programs are effective, they often fall far short of serving and supporting all children in need.

  • Voluntary, evidence-based home visiting programs provide impressive short- and long-term gains for children and families who participate. However, in FY2019, the MIECHV Program served only a small portion of parents and children across the country.11
  • Due to underfunding, Head Start served less than 55 percent of eligible three and four-year-olds and Early Head Start served less than 9 percent of eligible infants and toddlers in 2018.12
  • Other quality preschool programs for three and four-year-olds are also a key part of the continuum. Yet, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), during the 2018-2019 school year, only 34 percent of four-year-olds and 6 percent of three-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program. Only four states operated a program that met all ten of NIEER’s evidence-based quality standards (see Table 20).
  • While total state funding for preschool increased by 3.6 percent during the 2018-2019 school year, the increase was small compared to high growth years and spending per child was essentially flat after adjusting for inflation.13
  • Full-day kindergarten boosts students’ academic achievement as well as their social and emotional skills. Studies show full-day kindergarten can produce long-term educational gains, especially for children of color and children from families with low incomes.14 The majority of five-year-olds (82.7 percent) in kindergarten are enrolled in a full-day program; however, access to full-day kindergarten is only guaranteed in 17 states and the District of Columbia.15

The high cost of child care and lack of early childhood investments leave many children without quality care during critical years of brain development. We must ensure every child has the head start they need through access to a continuum of high-quality, comprehensive early childhood opportunities starting at birth. To do this, Congress must ensure child care providers have the immediate support needed to keep from permanently closing during the pandemic and states have the long-term funding needed to reconstruct a child care infrastructure that better serves all children and families.

The Child Care Crisis Creates Impossible Decisions for Families

In May 2020, Cristina Guajardo of Austin, TX, was let go from her job and unable to start a new job until her two-year-old’s subsidized daycare was able to reopen. Cristina turned down job opportunities as bills continued to pile up and was forced into the impossible decision between caring for her child and beginning a much-needed new job.16

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that child care providers are not only essential for the development and education of our next generation, but for parents like Cristina who have been forced to choose between working to keep food on the table and provide for their families and staying home to care for their children as many child care providers don’t have the resources they need to safely stay open. Child care is also essential for our healthcare workers, United States Postal Service (USPS) workers, and other workers providing essential services we all depend on to keep our economy running. This burden has fallen especially hard on our nation’s mothers as 2.2 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began, largely due to caregiving responsibilities;17 mothers could face $64.5 billion in lost wages and economic activity with continued inaction.18

With months-long child care closures and little federal relief to date, as many as 4.5 million child care slots could be permanently lost due to the pandemic—a loss that is estimated to impact at least 2.25 million families.19 Many child care providers—including those that have contributed their own funds and faced growing debt to ensure they have the resources they need to stay safe while caring for our children—continue to face economic destabilization and permanent closures.20 Our child care system was struggling long before the pandemic and we must ensure the system is strengthened and has the necessary funding and support that recognizes it as the as the necessity it is for families, businesses, and our economy.