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Mary Cathryn Ricker's picture
When my kids were born, advice flowed from every corner on every issue. Food, sleep, clothing, schooling—you name it, we heard it. 
Plenty of people told us to save for college, which we began to do in earnest. But the one thing no one ever told us was that the cost of child care could eclipse what we would ever spend on college. 
Let me say that again and with some research to back it up. The annual cost of child care for an infant is more than the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges in 31 states, according to a recent report by Child Care Aware of America.
After our second child was born, I took on a second job in order to pay for our child care and preschool costs. I never quite got over the irony that this meant I would be with my children less in order to pay for their time away from me. But even that wasn’t enough. My husband and I ended up taking out a home equity loan to cover the costs. 
I know what some of you may be thinking. Why didn’t one of us quit our job and stay home? For our family, as I know is the case for many, that just wasn’t an option. For practical reasons, we still needed both incomes and health benefits. And as a two-teacher family, we knew that, developmentally, children who have access to high-quality early education are given a running start. We wanted our children to have the social and academic benefits. 
We were caught in a Catch-22: We couldn’t afford child care, but we couldn’t afford not to have it. 
My kids are both teenagers now. As just about every parent experiences, those early years flew by, and now we find ourselves worrying about the financial hit of college. Although, at least when it comes to college, we still have time to prepare and there are public financing options available. With child care, the financial hit came weeks after our children were born and there were very few opportunities to prepare for it. 
What keeps me up at night is the fact that there are so many parents who simply can’t find a way to afford quality early childhood education and care. I am very aware of our privileged position because we had the means to find a solution. Meanwhile, millions of low-income families and single parents are left without viable solutions. Although families earning below the poverty level qualify for government-funded subsidies for child care, only 17 percent of eligible children actually receive these subsidies
And, oftentimes, these subsidies just aren’t enough. According to that same Child Care Aware of America study, the average annual subsidy payment covers $6,120 per year for an infant in center-based care. But the average annual cost is much higher—about $9,520 per year—according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Those families who just can’t find a way to afford high-quality childcare often settle for lower quality, unregulated care. Others do stay home—nearly 30 percent of mothers, up from 23 percent in 1999, according to the Pew Research Center. And, 20 percent of four-year-olds nationwide are not receiving early childhood education or care outside the home. However, that increase of stay at home moms is happening in lower- and middle-income families, which likely means that mothers are staying home not necessarily because they are choosing to opt out of the workforce but because of financial hardship, according to the study. Staying home is a great choice, and it should be a viable choice.
For African-American families, lack of access to affordable, high-quality early childhood care and education is another example of the pernicious barriers that structural racism forces into our community. Research has shown that African-American children have made substantial and continuing academic gains with access to high quality early childhood care and education, yet according to a 2013 study, there are alarming disparities between the quality of care for African-American children and other children.  I believe that I have a responsibility to play a role in ending that by expanding access for all communities and end the role privilege plays in access to high-quality child care for all families.
So what’s the answer? Let me start with what isn’t the answer, and that’s paying our early childhood education workforce any less. 
For the past 25 years, wages for the early childhood workforce have remained at poverty levels. In 2012, nearly half of child care workers relied on some form of public assistance to make ends meet, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, “Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages.” At the same time, these educators have worked hard to increase their skills and expertise. In the past 17 years, the number of Head Start teachers with an associate or bachelor’s degree has increased by 61 percent, and the number of assistant teachers with a degree has increased by 24 percent. It seems that early childhood educators are doing everything right but are getting nothing in return.
The early childhood education workforce must be paid a living wage and decent benefits—not only because they deserve to be treated like professionals, but also because our children deserve and need the high-quality care that well-compensated and trained educators will provide. 
It’s imperative for Congress and the Obama administration to come up with a solution that provides our early childhood educators with living wages. At the same time, we need to give every child in America a strong start by ensuring they have access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care.
Any money spent on early childhood education and care makes good economic sense. As President Obama himself has said, studies have shown that every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood programs saves us up to eight dollars in the future.
The Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides federal funds to states to provide monthly subsidies or vouchers to low-income families to help them afford the cost of child care, was recently reauthorized with bipartisan support.
In addition, just this week, President Obama announced proposed changes to child care tax benefits. These changes would not only streamline current child care tax benefits but also triple the maximum child care credit to $3,000 per child. Under these proposals, the full credit would be made available to middle-class families, benefiting 5.1 million families and 6.7 million children, according to the White House
This is a good start, but much more needs to happen and the federal government must take the lead. My hope is that when President Obama stands before Congress tonight to address the state of the union, universal access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care is at the top of his list of priorities. Our children, our families and our economy can afford nothing less. 

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