Early Learning is Key to a Prosperous Economy
Part III in a series on investments that will help rebuild the middle class and put Washington state on a stronger path to prosperity.
As the Legislature looks to create a new budget, lawmakers should keep in mind that investments in programs that help Washingtonians find or keep a job and help children grow up in an economically secure environment are essential to improving the overall economy.
High-quality early learning is one of those investments. It prepares children to succeed in school, and gives parents peace of mind that their children are in a safe and nurturing environment while they are at work. Early education is also good for businesses, as children who attend high-quality preschool outperform their peers as adults in the labor market.
Working Connections Child Care (WCCC), the program that helps people who work at low-wage jobs afford child care, is an important component of the state’s early learning system. It gives affordable care to low-income children so their parents can work or look for a job. Without the subsidies, parents would spend between one-third to half of their income on child care, leaving little to cover other basic needs, like food and housing.
However, people participating in Working Connections Child Care have access to only a small percentage of child care providers, creating a huge barrier to affordable child care for families and undermining early learning in our state.
In Washington state, families receiving WCCC only have access to 37 percent of the least expensive providers – far below the federal recommendation that recipients have access to the 75 least expensive providers out of every 100 (see graph). This is meant to ensure that low-income families have adequate choices for care and that providers have the resources needed to recruit and retain the best teachers, which increases quality.
Without the subsidies, providers are forced to cut costs to remain affordable, but this compromises the quality of care kids receive. Some instead choose to stop accepting families with subsidies altogether, so they can charge more. And some end up shutting down completely. In fact, 4,000 providers have shut down since the recession began, cutting availability of child care when parents and children need it the most.
Making sure people in Washington state have access to high-quality child care and early education opportunities is paramount, as the first five years of life are the time when children’s brain development is soaring, and they have an intense capacity for learning. Increasing the subsidy rate for WCCC is one promising way the legislature can improve early learning in our state, giving our children the quality care they deserve and supporting parents in the workforce.
Also in this series: