Fact Sheet Shows Underinvestment in the Early Years

Across the states, large numbers of young, low-income children are missing out on opportunities to gain the skills and positive approach to learning they will need to succeed in school.  For a two-year-old in a community without Early Head Start, or a four-year-old on a waiting list for a high quality early care and education program, this missed opportunity is likely to mean weaker language skills than your more affluent peers and gaps in other competencies that matter for school success. Investing in Young Children: A Fact Sheet on Early Care and Education Participation, Access, and Quality documents the magnitude of this missed opportunity. The joint report from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) reveals that significant underinvestment in quality early care and education programs at the state and federal levels leaves large numbers of children underserved. 

The report highlights differences across the states in several policies that affect families’ access to early care and education.  For example, only 19 states have initiatives that expand Early Head Start; 29 states and the District of Columbia (DC) keep co-payments for child care subsidies at or below 10 percent of family income for families at 150 percent of the federal poverty line; and only 15 states and DC have lead agencies that accept applications for child care assistance at community-based locations. 

States’ underinvestment in quality is also notable.  For child care and early education to be effective, it must be high-quality, with staffing that allows learning to occur through frequent, personalized teacher-child interactions.  Unfortunately, most states are not meeting recommended benchmarks for child care licensing that set the environment for those interactions.  According to this report, only 4 states (CT, ND, OR, VT) meet benchmarks for both class size and adult-child ratios, while 33 states meet neither of these critical benchmarks.  Also, too few states are using child care subsidy policies to promote quality.  Fourteen states and DC use direct contracts tied to quality or comprehensive services for children while 16 states and DC include tiered reimbursement in their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems.  

Children are also underserved by the three largest federal child care and early education programs: Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Head Start and Early Head Start.  Since 2006, approximately 150,000 children have lost access to child care subsidies and an additional 30,000 will lose subsidies as a result of sequestration. Only 42 percent of eligible children are served by Head Start preschool and a mere 4 percent of eligible children are served by Early Head Start. As a result of sequestration, 57,000 children have lost or will lose access to Head Start services in 2013.  Together with enhanced state investments and policies, The Strong Start for America’s Children Act, introduced on November 12, 2013 could dramatically change this picture by increasing federal funds for home visiting services and for high quality child care and preschool. 

State policymakers and advocates can use this report to take stock of early care and education policies in their state and identify opportunities to increase both access and quality.  Readers will also learn about NCCP and CLASP resources that can inform this work (e.g., NCCP’s state-by-state Early Childhood Policy Profiles and CLASP’s Child Care Assistance and Head Start Factsheets).  Strengthened investments in early care and education policies would mean that, instead of bearing the burden of missed opportunities to learn, young children could start school equipped with the skills they need to realize their full potential and their families’ hopes for their success. 

-Sheila Smith, National Center for Children in Poverty, and Hannah Matthews, Center for Law and Social Policy