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Children First: What a “Values-Based Budget” Looks Like

What would happen if we prioritized children’s potential? That’s the question implicitly asked and explicitly answered in the recent paper ”Breaking the Silence on Early Child Care and Education Costs.”  Elise Gould, Marcy Whitebook, Zane Mokhiber and Lea J.E. Austin detail a proposal for funding California’s child early care and education (ECE) system to an extent worthy of society’s claims to caring about the development of all children. It’s a joint effort of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE).

I spoke to Gould, senior economist with EPI, about “Breaking the Silence” and how its lessons go beyond the budget of one particular state. Here are a few takeaways from our conversation:

  • California counts. The state accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. population and a slightly higher percentage of its young children. Gould notes that similar research is needed on other states and municipalities. EPI has collected the Cost of Child Care by State.
  • Daycare is education. The authors consciously refer to daycare staff as “educators” and “teachers.” Gould maintains that the profession is overdue for a raise. “Families complain that child care is expensive,” she says. “We’re saying maybe it’s not expensive enough. You’ve got to pay for quality.” In an earlier paper, she and two co-authors lament “our century-long tradition of separating ‘care’ from ‘education’ as if they are distinct activities that do not occur simultaneously.”
  • “Early” matters. We know that what we do to foster brain development at 12- to 24-months makes a greater difference in the long run than, say, the education of 11th and 12th graders. “If we value school readiness and other benefits of ECE,” Gould says. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”
  • The benefits of investing are far reaching. It’s good for the economic security of teachers, the educational and career futures of the children, and the right-now economy, too: Workers need a reliable, trusted place to send their children, but a ReadyNation report explored in an earlier piece in Early Learning Nation found, “Productivity problems cause employers to lose $12.7 billion annually due to child care challenges faced by their workforce.”
  • It’s about more than access. There is more than one way to fund ECE. According to the paper, “To the extent that greater public investment has been undertaken, it has focused primarily on increasing access for low-income children by expanding the subsidy system or by establishing public preschool. Increasingly, policymakers are also looking at how to make child care more affordable for families who do not currently qualify for subsidies. Only rarely, however, do increased investments target better working conditions and compensation for early educators, who are essential for program quality.” [italics mine]

Senator Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Haaland (D-N.M.) recently introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act. In Gould’s analysis of the proposal, it scores points for acknowledging that “high-quality care is essential for social, emotional and mental development.”

Think of it as a noteworthy variation on the Two-Generation Approach championed by the Aspen Institute and others. On top of building solutions for children and their parents, philanthropic as well as government dollars might be devoted to supporting professionals who spend considerable hours with young children five days a week. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women (disproportionately women of color and immigrant women) make up 94 percent of the child care workforce. Of course, a great many of these women are mothers themselves.

When asked who’s getting child care right, Gould points to the U.S. military, which provides 12 weeks continuous paid maternity leave for all uniformed service members, provides for 12 hours of subsidized child care a day, and sets early childhood teachers’ salaries at a rate of pay equivalent to those of other Department of Defense employees with similar training, education, seniority and experience. (Read more from EPI on this topic.)

Gould maintains that what she calls a “values-based budget” would reflect the priorities that we as a society care about the most. This paper puts that principle into action.

Mark Swartz
Mark Swartz

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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