How to End the Child-Care Crisis
Twenty-five years ago, the Carnegie Corporation released “Starting Points,” a report that described the lack of child care for infants and toddlers as a “quiet crisis.” It painted a bleak picture of overwhelmed families, persistent poverty, inadequate health care and child care of such poor quality that it threatened young children’s intellectual and emotional development.
Unlike most reports of this kind, “Starting Points” helped build momentum for new programs like Early Head Start in 1994 and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. They offer critical support for children and families, but little has changed for the better since then. Today 21 percent of children under 3 live in poverty. The United States is the only industrialized country without paid family leave. The percentage of working mothers has increased from 50 percent to 70 percent, but according to the National Institutes of Health, just 10 percent of our child-care settings provide high-quality care.
This lack of affordable quality child care is a crisis for American families. In 35 states, families pay more for child care than for mortgages, and in no state does the average cost of infant or toddler care meet the federal definition of affordable. On a per-capita basis, we spend roughly six times less on education for infants and toddlers than we do on K-12. This shortchanges our children exactly when the potential benefit is greatest.
We know from breakthroughs in neuroscience that children’s brains are growing explosively during the first three years of life — developing more than one million neural connections a second. A child’s early brain architecture shapes all future learning and behavior. This is also the period in our lives when we are most vulnerable to trauma. Experiences like homelessness, forced family separation or exposure to violence inhibit a child’s ability to learn and form trusting relationships. By 24 months, many toddlers living in poverty show both behavioral and cognitive delays. Equally powerful, though, is the impact of an attuned parent or teacher who understands how to build loving, responsive relationships that can stimulate learning and repair the damage done by trauma.
In exemplary early-learning environments, children explore a rich range of materials and make choices as part of carefully planned routines. At the water table, a 2-year-old girl smears her arms with purple paint while a 1-year-old boy watches intently from a teacher’s lap before toddling over to investigate. Nearby, a teacher reads a book about dolphins as two girls take turns looking at the pictures and discuss what noises dolphins make when they are sad. Across the room, a baby crawls after a ball and his mother says: “Yes, you found a ball. That ball can roll.” In each instance, the adult comments on the child’s exploration in language that connects to the child’s interests and signals to the child that what she does matters. These relationships and experiences accelerate brain development and are the foundation for academic success when children enter school.