Substantial Increases to Support Pre-K and Child Care Await Final Budget Approval- A Potential Win-Win?

President Obama has taken on several ambitious efforts including overhauling health care, slowing global warming, and addressing college tuition. As his time in office is quickly coming to an end, he is trying for one more effort that, I would argue, might be one of the most important.  

During the recent State of the Union address, reiterating his commitment to expanding access to preschool and other early childhood education initiatives, President Obama called for a transformation of universal childcare and targeted tax breaks for working families in excess of $200 billion over ten years. This is pretty significant and has the potential to greatly influence the future direction of economic policy and priorities. 

Since elected, Obama has worked with private sector to increase investments in early education and child care totaling over 1 billion dollars- that includes an $17.5 million allocation to supplement Alabama’s First Class, the state voluntary pre-k program. Additionally, the federal funding of the Infant and Toddler Partnership grant extends care over several years to an additional 600 of our youngest children (0-03 years). 

Yet, like many social issues, it seems there is never enough money to fully address the problem. With already high price tags thousands of Alabamians with young children are burdened with the challenge of paying for child care. According to Childcare Resources, a non profit in Birmingham that works to improve the quality and affordability of child care, the average cost for full time infant care is still outrageous -over $6,000 annually coming at a time when young families can least afford it. States, including Alabama are relentlessly working to offset costs and finding innovative ways to blending funding streams and help more families. Such investments not only help families offset the cost of care, but often assist in improve the quality of care provided. 

The funding of early childhood education is complex. Several efforts aid states in providing child care funds to states including Head Start, Early Head Start and Pre-K. The Child Care and Development Fund,known as CCDF specifically provides states with matching funds so they can offer partial or fully subsidized care to eligible families. Alabama’s total CCDF allocation in 2014 was over $84,000,000. Funding also assists in efforts to improve the quality of child care which is often sadly substandard. 

As in most states, demand throughout Alabama for subsidized childcare far exceeds the supply. There are long waiting lists and in many cases, due to limited funds, no assistance is offered. Speaking about the economic development return on investment and the importance of providing a safe and nurturing environment for children, President Obama also pledged to expand CCDF funding.  As a board member and former employee of Childcare Resources, I can attest to the challenges aforementioned. Each week Childcare Resources receives hundreds of calls from parents about their struggles and desire for help. Fortunately, thanks to generous private donors and local grantmakers including the United Way, Childcare Resources is able to offer financial assistance to over 222 families that may have never received a dime from the federal government. Currently, there are 452 families on the waiting list.  Those who receive help are beyond grateful to the agency. Some respite may come as President Obama hopes to pump an additional $80 billion into the subsidized child care program over 10 years -- potentially enough to boost eventual annual enrollment from 1.6 million to 2.6 million. Thus, child care will be available to all families with a household income of less than 200 percent of the poverty line. Coupled with increasing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit families might be in a slightly better place. 

It remains questionable whether Obama’s proposals will receive support from both parties, yet looks promising.  Obama’s early childhood agenda doesn’t differ from Childcare Resources or Alabama’s –they all strive to ensure access, affordability and quality. Some will continue to raise objections arguing that the policies slight stay at home parents. But this is just combative and not the intention of such programs.  Along with celebrities Shakira and Jennifer Gardner, advocates must keep the momentum going to ensure the President and Congress follow through. Hopefully both parties will recognize their crucial role in supporting such investments and not be dismissive of these proposals while bickering over the budget.