Editor’s Note: Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is the senior US Senator from Massachusetts and has served since 2013. Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat, is the junior US Senator from Minnesota and has served since 2018. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, as a surging virus shuttered child care centers across the country, the two of us got together and outlined a vision for $50 billion in emergency funding to keep centers afloat and preserve a vital safety net for parents. We fought to secure that funding, and we won.
Now, a new crisis looms for working families: Federal child care funding is about to take a nose dive off a cliff as much of that pandemic relief expires at the end of September, and Republicans refuse to make any new investments in early education funding.
If the Republicans have their way, more than 3 million babies will lose their child care — at a minimum — and millions of parents will be forced to scramble for other arrangements or leave the workforce altogether.
But there is a glimmer of light. Some members of Congress have indicated they may support increased funding for a few federal programs, including disaster relief and aid for Ukraine. President Joe Biden and Democrats should use this opening and insist that emergency child care funding be part of any supplemental spending package.
For decades, the economics of child care in America have been badly broken. Care is hard to find — especially for babies too young to enter kindergarten. And even when families are lucky enough to score a spot, the costs are crushing. In fact, Care.com’s annual Cost of Care Report found that, on average, American families are spending more than a quarter of their income on child care in 2023. At the same time, child care providers struggle to make ends meet, and workers make poverty-level wages for their powerfully important and difficult work in most states.
The Covid-19 pandemic was the latest blow to the industry, but it was also a wake-up call. In normal years, the federal government spends just $13 billion on child care, compared to $712 billion on defense. In fact, the US is 33rd out of the 37 richest nations in child care investments — behind Mexico and Romania. But emergency funding reached more than eight out of every 10 child care providers nationwide, providing them with enough money to raise wages temporarily for workers without raising costs for parents. That support also meant millions more parents could go to work knowing their children were in good hands.
As the pandemic relief expires, a bad problem will get worse. The child care industry is still short nearly 50,000 child care workers. Child care directors are already preparing to face impossible choices: slashing salaries for child care workers or raising costs on parents. Child care analysts estimate that 70,000 child care programs will close if emergency child care funding expires. That means nearly a quarter of a million child care workers could lose their jobs, and 3.2 million children could lose child care.
One way to address this crisis would be for Congress to increase the annual appropriations for child care and early education, but thanks to MAGA Republicans’ use of the debt ceiling to hold the US economy hostage, Congress is restricted by spending caps. But there’s one last sliver of opportunity: Congress is now considering additional emergency funding outside of annual appropriations for disaster relief, the military and Ukraine. Why not address the child care emergency, too?
Reporting indicates the Biden administration is preparing a supplemental request for emergency funding. If the president is serious about his commitment to America’s families — and his strong track record indicates that he is — then that request should include additional funding to address the child care emergency, just the same as for disaster relief, the military and Ukraine. And Congress should approve it quickly.
Experts estimate that $16 billion would prevent the child care sector from falling off the pandemic funding cliff, giving child care providers support to retain their staffs and keep open the classrooms that parents rely on. And we know other leaders in the fight for child care funding — like our Senate colleagues Tim Kaine and Patty Murray — are ready to help get this done.
In the longer term, Congress needs to pass the big structural reforms and long-term funding that will permanently fix our broken child care system. This will help to ensure that all families can find high-quality, reliable and affordable child care, and that child care workers are paid the wages they deserve.