As the presidential candidates discuss and debate how to improve our country, nurturing the youngest Americans should be top of mind for all who are serious about securing our future. When babies get a good start in life, their chances for success, and ours, increase exponentially. This means better school outcomes, workforce readiness, social stability and global competitiveness -- results in which all the candidates should have a stake.
For many working families, a good start in life for their new babies includes child care. When heading off to work, all parents deserve to be confident that their babies are receiving the best quality care possible. Unfortunately, the real story of infant-toddler care in America is that quality programs are few and far between and out of reach for those children who could benefit most. In general, when quality child care can be found at all, it eats up too much of families' budgets -- more than 24 percent of median income for single parents. For low-income children -- many of whom face daily stressors ranging from hunger to unstable housing to parents frazzled from coping with making ends meet -- affordable, high-quality early childhood programs can make the difference between success and failure. Yet these children are more likely to have access only to low-quality care that actually can be detrimental to development.
Why should ensuring access to high-quality child care be at the center of an agenda to strengthen our country's future? Because today's babies will be the core of our mid-century workforce and investing in them now gives us the greatest chance for impact. Right from the beginning, babies' brains are exploding with activity and are hungry for input. In fact, during the first three years, 700 new neural connections are formed in the brain every second. That's 42,000 per minute and more than 2.5 million in an hour. It is at this time that the foundational architecture of the brain is formed, setting the stage for future learning.
For the more than six million infants and young toddlers who spend at least part of their day in the care of someone other than their parents, this is the setting in which much of this explosion of development unfolds. The nature of the relationships and connections that grow between caregivers and children are huge factors in a child's healthy physical, social-emotional and cognitive growth, and they are at the heart of child care quality. Babies learn from the interactions they have with the adults who care for them, whether at home with their parents or in child care with their caregiver. When relationships between caregivers and children are nurturing, individualized, responsive and predictable, they increase the odds of desirable outcomes -- building a brain architecture that provides a strong foundation for future learning, behavior and health.
Infants and toddlers in child care benefit from caregivers who understand how to respond to individual social and emotional needs and are trained in facilitating the play and exploration that are the basis for baby learning. A child care center or family child care home should be a place where a nurturing staff provides an environment rich in language and activities guided by the young child's own agenda for discovery. While child care providers are the central ingredient in providing high-quality care, it continues to be an under-compensated, yet high stress, occupation. In 2014, the national median wage for childcare workers was only $9.48 an hour, and those who work with our youngest children are hit the hardest. Caregivers serving babies and toddlers earn 28 percent less than those working with 3- to 5-year-olds.
Some markers for high-quality care: staff with only a few children to care for at once, rooms where children aren't overwhelmed by large numbers, low staff turnover fueled by adequate compensation, and educational qualifications. Early Head Start -- the federal program that provides comprehensive child development and family support services to infants and toddlers and their families with incomes at or below the poverty line -- is built on proven benchmarks to ensure the best outcomes, which should be the standard for all child care settings. For centers, that includes:
- A ratio of one staff person for every four infants and toddlers;
- No more than eight children in a group at one time;
- And requiring a Child Development Associate Credential or above for the caregiver (or completion of one within a year of starting service) and training in early childhood development with a focus on infant-toddler development.
Early Head Start is a beacon for infant-toddler child care quality, especially for very young children in poverty who could most benefit from high-quality environments. But only a very few infants and toddlers (1 in 20 of those eligible) are able to access the program due to underfunding at the federal level. Elsewhere, young children are left to individual state child care requirements rarely shaped by the needs of young brains. Clearly, we need to flood our nation's early child care landscape with quality if more children are to get the strong start they need to thrive.
With so much at stake, why aren't all the candidates talking about the big investments in early childhood that will create our future workforce, parents, and leaders of this country. It seems like a no-brainer. The need for supports for working families -- like child care -- is popping up on the campaign trail, although details often are sparse and don't necessarily take the child's development into account. The President's Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposes to invest $82 billion over the next 10 years in quality child care for low-income families. The Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning Act (Child C.A.R.E. Act), recently introduced in Congress, would take the first legislative step to ensure that all low-income families with infants and toddlers have access to high-quality child care by 2026. These are much-needed blueprints that show the way to critical improvements in one of the most important contributors to this country's growth, competitiveness and prosperity.
We have the opportunity right now to pave these vital pathways for the future. By making smart investments now, we can keep the quality of care received by our country's youngest constituents at the top of mind. They will, after all, be voters one day.