Research Shows the Importance and Paradox of Early Childhood Care and Education

Oct 8, 2020, 10:30 AM, Posted by

Dependable child care is critical for healthy development—and for the nation to return to work. However, costs are often unaffordable even while many child-care workers are not making a living wage. Ultimately, the entire nation faces the consequences of a system in crisis.

Young girl coloring in a daycare facility.

While working from home and caring for our families as we wait out the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t always been easy, it certainly is a privilege that we value during these unprecedented times. We’re fortunate that our organization recognizes the importance of families and caregiving. In addition, the nature of our jobs allows us to work remotely and have flexible schedules. This helps us support our families during a global pandemic. Unfortunately, the vast majority of working parents in America today, especially women of color, don’t have this choice.

Instead, as pressure mounts to reopen the country, many working parents face an impossible dilemma. Those without the option to telecommute are forced to return to work while struggling to find safe and affordable child care. Or they must stay at home to care for their children and face financial ruin. This burden falls disproportionately on women of color who are on the frontlines of many essential jobs. Many are also child-care providers who face the monumental feat of juggling their low wage, high risk jobs with caring for their families and themselves in the midst of a pandemic. Ultimately, the entire country faces the consequences of an inequitable childhood care system in deep crisis.

Our nation’s health depends on the health of our children and the early childhood care and education (ECCE) providers that nurture them.

As America recovers from the pandemic and reopens the economy, rebuilding our ECCE system in a way that prioritizes equity and well-being is critical. We cannot reopen and recover without a stable and affordable child care system.

Several new studies funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) support this. They show that ECCE is a public good that requires sustained investment, equitable access, and compensation that reflects the value and risks faced by frontline ECCE providers.

High-Quality Care is Critical for Healthy Development Into Adulthood

We’ve known for a long time that health and education are closely linked, and that people with higher education live longer. But a new study reveals that ECCE interventions may improve health outcomes later in life. Researchers have been studying long-term economic and health outcomes among children who had access to preschool education in the 1940s compared to those who did not. They found that children with access to nursery school had better long-term education and economic outcomes.

Early Childhood Care and Education Providers Face a Deep Crisis

While we know that ECCE is critical to children’s health and well-being, fewer studies have shed light on the 2.2 million providers, many of whom are women of color who care for the 10 million children in early childhood care. These child-care providers are in a double bind. They are responsible for caring for their own children and the children of others. They are both producers of ECCE and also consumers of it. In spite of risks to themselves and their families, they show up to their jobs every day. Ultimately, the health and well-being of these providers is one of the most important factors in ensuring safe, nurturing and appropriate ECCE care for all children.

Studies have shown that healthy brain development during early childhood increases the likelihood of success later in life. Supportive and nurturing environments set children up for a lifetime of good health.

Yet, a new study highlights the deep crisis ECCE providers and teachers face and how low wages force many to the brink of poverty. Many lack access to health insurance or paid sick or family leave.

This research shows that early childhood providers experience disproportionate mental health well-being challenges and face remarkably high rates of food insecurity. The very people caring for our children don’t have enough food to feed themselves and their families.

Messaging Shapes Perception of the Problem

So why aren’t we doing more to support the people and the system that cares for and nurtures our children during their formative years? The evidence is so clear that early childhood care and education is a public good. Why aren’t we making the investments needed to create a more equitable and affordable system that helps working families, including single-parent families.

Part of the problem is how the issue is framed. Another recent study shows how strategic messaging can build public acceptance for policies to support affordable, accessible and appropriate child care. But ongoing challenges remain in generating support among a sizeable subgroup of elected officials who oppose public funding for early childhood education.

Narratives that are rooted in sound evidence on the links between affordable and safe ECCE and economic benefits could help. Evidence shows that child-care subsidies for low-income families provide double value by creating healthier outcomes for children and higher economic benefits for families. A recently published policy brief by RWJF argues that sufficiently funding the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the primary public child care program in the United States, can play a critical role in supporting the health and well-being of children and families.

New Resources Offer Data on Costs

While no single entity is responsible for collecting data on the inequities of ECCE two new resources make reliable data on the costs of ECCE more accessible for advocates and policymakers. Project Hope’s Selecting Indicators for Early Childhood Systems Change Projects, is a new reference guide. It is a compilation of data sets that can help identify where inequities exist in order to set goals and mark progress on ECCE policy.

And a new database released by Child Care Aware now provides the most up-to-date data on ECCE cost for researchers and policymakers. The interactive database creates a real time assessment and picture of child care access and affordability in all 50 states. The database examines different factors that influence affordability, such as cost of living by region, median income for different types of families and household size. 

One shocking fact: Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the associated closures of child-care programs, the supply of child care was decreasing. Between 2018 and 2019, 53% of states reported a decline in the number of child-care centers and 79% of states reported a decline in family child-care providers.

We have the data, now we need to change how we talk about the positive health outcomes of early childhood care and education. More importantly we need to change a system that perpetuates inequality and neglects the providers who deserve basic benefits like health insurance, paid sick leave and better wages that account for the risk and value of the services they provide.

ECCE Workers are Essential—They Deserve a Living Wage

COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that ECCE providers are essential to our society's livelihood. They deserve to be treated as such. Safe, affordable, accessible and appropriate ECCE that values providers shouldn’t be a choice. It is critical to our country’s overall well-being and to our economic recovery. In order for businesses to reopen, parents need safe, affordable child care. At the same time, the child-care workforce needs additional resources to provide safe, developmentally appropriate, care. We are seeing in real time how the current system cannot meet the needs of families, communities or our nation’s economic recovery. Let’s not miss this opportunity to improve the system and ensure equitable access to child care and early childhood education for all.

Learn more about how we’re expanding the evidence needed to build a Culture of Health through Evidence for Action, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and our commitment to Healthy Children and Families.


About the Authors

Tina Kauh

Tina Kauh is a senior program officer with the Research-Evaluation-Learning Unit at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where she focuses on supporting the health and well-being of children.

Krista Scott bio image.

Krista Scott is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where she works at the forefront of child health policy, advocacy, and equity.