The State of America’s Children 2023 – Early Childhood2023-05-19T15:32:49-05:00
2023-SOAC-Hero-Early Childhood

The State of America’s Children®


Early Childhood

In 2021, there were 8.7 million slots in licensed child care centers and family child care programs for 12.3 million children, based on an analysis of 43 states.

The first five years of life are the most critical for brain development. During this time, the brain grows fastest, setting the foundation for a child’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.38 This period of rapid brain development offers the greatest opportunity to provide children with the head start and strong foundation needed to guarantee a successful passage into adulthood.

Despite the increased research and knowledge surrounding the importance of brain development in the early years, too few children, particularly those living in poverty, have access to affordable, high-quality early development and learning opportunities. The high cost of child care and insufficient options leave many children without quality care and learning opportunities during the most critical years of brain development.

When children have access to programs like Head Start, the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), they receive the nurturing environments and resources needed to support healthy brain development. However, before the pandemic and due to a lack of federal investment, Head Start, a program serving low-income young children and their families, only served 41% of the 3-to-5-year-olds and 9% of infants and toddlers in poverty.39

Investing in programs like Head Start can positively impact children’s future educational attainment, employment, and health. Economic research suggests that for every $1 spent on early education, the return on investment ranges from $4 to $1340. A robust long-term investment is essential to ensure high-quality early care and learning opportunities are accessible to the children and families that need them most.

A lack of investment is failing to relieve parents and families from child care’s high and inaccessible cost.

  • The national average price of child care is around $10,600 annually.41
  • In 2021, center-based child care for an infant cost more than public college tuition in 34 states and the District of Columbia.42
  • By another comparison, in 2021, child care was more expensive than housing in 30 states and D.C. (see Table 17).
  • For married-couple families, child care for an infant costs anywhere from 8% to 17% of their household income.43
  • Child care costs single parents at least one-third of their annual income in all but seven states.44

The Department of Health and Human Services sets an affordability benchmark of child care out-of-pocket costs at no more than 7% of a household’s income, meaning child care is unaffordable for married-couple families or single-parent families in every state.45 The pandemic pushed an already struggling child care sector to the brink of collapse, only saved by temporary pandemic-related relief that ended in May 2023.

  • In 2018, an estimated 51% of families lived in an area with an inadequate supply of child care, with 55% of low-income families living in areas without enough licensed child care providers.46
  • In 2021, based on an analysis of 43 states, there were 8.7 million slots in licensed child care centers and family child care programs.47
  • However, the number of children who potentially needed child care totaled 12.3 million in 2021, leaving a licensed child care supply gap of 3.6 million slots.48
  • In FY 2020 close to 1.5 million children were served each month by CCDF subsidies.
  • The number of children receiving CCDF subsidies has decreased by more than 285,000 since 2006 (see Table 18).

The lack of investment in early childhood also negatively impacts the sector’s workforce.

  • Child care workers earn less than half a living wage in all 50 states and D.C.; they earn, on average, less than $27,700 a year, just $13.13 an hour (see Table 19).
  • There isn’t a single state in which child care providers earn even half of the living wage for a single parent with one child (see Table 19).
  • On average, early educators face poverty rates 7.7 times higher than teachers in the K-8 system49
  • 96% of the child care workforce is female, 40% are people of color.50 Their low wages are both a gender and racial justice issue.

Prior to the pandemic, there was progress made in preschool access. However, enrollment in state-funded preschool decreased nationwide by 298,000 children, or 18%, in the first year of the pandemic, reversing a decade of progress in preschool enrollment and dropping for the first time in 20 years.51

  • During the 2020-21 school year, states enrolled almost 1.36 million children in state-funded preschool, including 1.15 million 4-year-olds and 187,000 3-year-olds.52
  • During the 2020-21 school year, only 29% of 4-year-olds and less than 5% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in preschool (see Table 20).53
  • Although enrollment rebounded by Fall 2021 compared to the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment remained roughly five percentage points lower than before the pandemic.54
  • When young children do have access to preschool, the quality of the program varies. Only 5 states have programs that meet each of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 10 benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards (Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi and Rhode Island, (see Table 20).
  • Only 11% of children enrolled in state-funded preschool were in a program meeting 9 or 10 benchmarks.55

It is not sufficient to restore early childhood development and education programs to where they were prior to the pandemic. Providing critical pandemic-related relief to the sector allowed programs to remain open, parents received relief from the high care cost, and workers received temporary bonuses. However, that relief will soon run out, and the only solution to building an affordable, equitable, and sustainable early childhood continuum is a robust long-term investment.

Policy makers must provide robust long-term investments to ensure that families can afford care, children receive the necessary critical developmental support, and workers receive a living wage. No matter the setting, whether it be child care, Head Start, preschool, or at home with a caregiver, young children deserve access to equitable high-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities that give them a head start in life.

[38] UNICEF. 2017. “Early Moments Matter”

[39] Friedman-Krauss, Alison et al. 2022. « The State(s) of Head Start and Early Head Start: Looking at Equity.” National Institute for Early Education Research.

[40] Gibbs, Haley M. et al. 2021. “The ‘real’ economic advantage of investing in families this holiday season.” Brookings Institute.

[41] Child Care Aware. 2022. “Price of Care: 2021 Child Care Affordability.” care/#2021DataAnalysisandRecommendations

[42] Child Care Aware of America. 2022. “Price of Care: 2021 Child Care Affordability Analysis,” Appendices III, XI, XII, XV.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Department of Health and Human Services. 2016. “Child Care and Development Fund Final Rule Frequently Asking Questions.”

[46] Malik, R. et al 2018. “America’s child care deserts in 2018.” Center for American Progress.

[47] Child Care Aware. 2022. “Price of Care: 2021 Child Care Affordability.” care/#2021DataAnalysisandRecommendations

[48] Ibid.

[49] McLean, al. 2021. “Early Childhood Workforce Index – 2020.” Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.

[50] Gillispie, C. et al 2021. “Equity in Child Care is Everyone’s Business.”  The Education Trust and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

[51] Friedman-Krauss, Allison et al. 2022. “The State of Preschool 2021: State Preschool Yearbook.” National Institute for Early Education Research.

[52] Note: Total (1.36 million) includes children enrolled in all public programs, preschool general (see Table 20) and special education plus federal- and state-funded Head Start. Source: Friedman-Krauss, Allison et al. 2022. “The State of Preschool 2021: State Preschool Yearbook.” National Institute for Early Education Research.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.