Publicly funded child care in the U.S. primarily functions as a support for low-income families, so they can work or go to school. But that wasn’t always the case. During World War II, Congress passed the Lanham Act to provide universal child care, so mothers could join the workforce and support the war effort. Eligibility for the program wasn’t based on family income, but when the war ended, so did funding for the centers.
The nation didn’t move toward a universal child care system again until 1971, when Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act. But then-President Richard Nixon vetoed it, saying that it would move the care of children away from a “family centered approach.”
Congress did, however, establish the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program in the 1970s to provide healthy food to pregnant mothers and young children up to age 5. Participation in the program is associated with better cognitive skills in the early years as well in school.
Mothers in the Workforce
Also in the 1970s, women’s participation in the labor force was steadily climbing, and by 2009, 66% of women with children 17 and under were working full- or part-time. The for-profit “day care” industry flourished to meet the demand with chain centers across the country.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded the development of the Child Development Associate credential in the early 1970s as a way to improve the quality of the workforce and set standards for those caring for young children. A landmark study released in 1995 shed light on the issue of quality, showing that “most child care is mediocre” and “sufficiently poor to interfere with children’s emotional and intellectual development.”
The study spurred multiple quality improvement efforts, but those focusing on centers often don’t reach infants and toddlers because very young children are more likely to be in home-based settings. The National Association for Family Child Care, founded in 1982, is one organization that offers accreditation as a way to improve the quality of these settings.
A Child Trends review highlighted aspects of quality care for young children, such as lower staff-to-child ratios and warm and positive interactions between providers and children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children provides descriptions of quality early learning settings for babies and toddlers.
A 2021 paper from the Infant and Toddler Policy Research Center at the National Institute for Early Education explores the links between quality and costs and notes the impact of child care on children’s development depends on the quality of the program and the characteristics of the child’s home life.
Federal funding for child care has generally been associated with the welfare system. The 1988 Family Support Act included funding for transitional child care. Congress passed the Child Care and Development Block Grant in 1990, which, with welfare reform in 1996, became the primary source of child care funding to states. A reauthorization in 2014 included requirements that states set aside a portion of their funding to serve infants and toddlers and improve the quality of care they receive.
Since the growth of state preschool programs in the 1990s, child care providers have faced further challenges to increasing quality for infants and toddlers. The revenue from serving 4-year-olds — in larger group sizes — offsets the higher cost of providing care for infants and toddlers. Losing older children to public schools often means centers must raise fees for parents or pay teachers less. Those in the industry have argued in favor of keeping public pre-K programs in the child care sector to avoid compromising the quality of care for the youngest children.
Increased Supports for Babies and Toddlers in the 1990s
The federal government in 1995 launched Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers, and expanded it to full-day, year-round services in 1998. An evaluation showed that 3-year-olds who participated in the program had better language, cognitive and social skills than those in a control group.
Key Context for Understanding the 0 to 3 Sector
Today, journalists looking to cover the education and care of children ages 0 to 3 need some familiarity with a variety of issues, including the web of state and federal programs and policies, the child care workforce, access to quality care, and more.
Working families today turn to a diverse mix of settings and providers to care for their infants and young children, including other family members, neighbors, center-based child care programs, and in-home providers who may or may not have a license to provide care. Many working parents use a mix of programs and providers, and those who work nontraditional hours can face significant challenges in finding affordable care. Given the sector is highly decentralized, it can be tricky for reporters to understand and keep tabs on.
The poverty rate for children under 5 is higher than the overall child poverty rate — 15.5%, compared with 14.4%, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. But even families living above the poverty line can experience a decline in income and financial stress after the birth of a child. The high cost of full-time care can pose a heavy burden on families.
An array of federal programs provide assistance, but experts say they still fall short of the needs families face.
Head Start (for children ages 3 to 5) and Early Head Start (for children younger than 3) are funded at nearly $11 billion annually (as of fiscal 2021). They provide assistance for early learning, health, nutrition, and other family supports. (The First Five Years Fund provides a helpful overview.)
The Child Care Development Block Grant provides subsidies, so low-income parents can go to work or school (and was funded at nearly $6 billion in fiscal 2021). According to a 2017 report, 1.9 million children received subsidies to help pay for child care, representing just 14% of children eligible for support under federal rules and 22% eligible under state guidelines.
For middle and higher-income families, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit offsets some of the costs of child care, which are particularly high for infants and toddlers. It takes more adults to care for very young children than it does preschoolers — especially if the teachers are well-trained and earn a living wage. Infant and toddler care, therefore, is unaffordable for many families.
Each state has licensing requirements governing child care programs — both center- and home-based — but families who can’t afford licensed care might opt for informal, or what is also called “unregulated,” care from a friend or relative. These providers, however, often don’t have formal training, and the care they provide might not meet recommended standards. Advocates say more networks of home-based providers would help improve quality.
Federal tax policies — the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) — are intended to provide some financial support to families with young children. The EITC has been found to boost health outcomes for children with low-income mothers, and both the EITC and CTC are linked with better academic performance.
Home-visiting programs support pregnant mothers, as well as parents with infants and toddlers, to promote good health and nutrition, educational development, and to prevent abuse, with the goal of reducing the risk of maltreatment.
Different models have different goals and outcomes. The Nurse-Family Partnership targets first-time, low-income mothers while Parents as Teachers has a broader approach. The federal Home Visiting Evidence of Effectiveness site is a good source of updated research on various models that states can implement with federal funds. Early Head Start, a federally funded program promoting infants’ and toddlers’ healthy development, also includes a home-visiting option for low-income families, as well as group settings in family child care homes and centers.
Experts recommend developmental and behavioral screenings to track whether young children are meeting important milestones, but many children don’t receive them. The U.S. Department of Education’s Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs: Act Early campaigns seek to increase screening rates, and technology has made it easier for parents to complete the screening questions. A 2018 study examined screening rates by state, and the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center’s “roadmap” also provides state-level data.
Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal grant program that provides early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities or those who might be at risk for later special education services. The U.S. Department of Education provides data on the number and percentage of children served.
Early educators who care for infants and toddlers earn significantly less than their counterparts who work with preschoolers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. This pay gap especially affects Black early educators who make up over half of infant and toddler teachers. Black early educators also make less than their white peers, and many in the field qualify for public assistance.
Education levels of providers caring for infants and toddlers range from barely a high school education to those with advanced degrees. A 2015 report recommended that all teachers working with young children earn at least a four-year degree.