'A Critical Part of Our Infrastructure': How California Plans to Bolster Child Care

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Children play at Mission Kids Preschool in San Francisco on June 1, 2021 during a visit by then-Sen. Alex Padilla. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California has almost 3 million children 5 years old and younger. As many parents of young children know, finding affordable, high-quality child care is hard to find — especially in the Bay Area.

Hundreds of thousands of families who qualify for child care programs can't access them because there simply aren't enough slots. The pandemic, which led to the closure of 8,500 care facilities, only worsened the bottleneck.

Lack of child care means that in many households, at least one parent, usually the mother, according to labor statistics, isn't able to work. The pandemic caused a “she-cession” rather than a recession, by disproportionately pulling women out of the workforce for lack of child care, said Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

On July 23, California signed a first-time contract with 40,000 child care providers under a new collective bargaining agreement.

The contract with Child Care Providers United increased wage rates and began phasing in 200,000 subsidized child care slots that the governor and advocates said are crucial to reopening a state economy pummeled by the pandemic.


A state bill also includes $40 million to help providers with training and professional development and $579 million to help child care and preschool providers who suffered during the pandemic.

With the new law, “women and parents can get back to work in California,” Skinner said.

The bargaining agreement also empowers caregivers who are primarily women, many of them women of color, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

“This is about fundamental infrastructure — the human capital — that’s as important as roads and bridges,” he said.

On July 19, KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal spoke with the following guests to gain a better understanding of some of the child care issues facing the state.

  • Lea Austin, executive director, UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment
  • Eileen Boris, Hull professor and distinguished professor of feminist studies, UC Santa Barbara
  • Deborah Stipek, professor, Stanford University Graduate School of Education
  • Micaela Mota, mother, parent leader, Parent Voices California

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexis Madrigal: What ugly truth did the pandemic reveal about America's child care system?

Lea Austin: It really revealed just how fragile and broken our child care system is. We had a system coming into the pandemic where we didn't have enough child care available for families. It's incredibly expensive for families, but that still doesn't actually cover the full cost of what it takes to provide early care and education services. We’re relying on a market and the market doesn't work. So what that means is the system gets subsidized on the backs of the people doing the work — with incredibly low wages.

The True Cost of Child Care

Your center has done some research into the true cost of child care for very young children. Could you walk us through what those estimates showed?

Lea Austin: If we were covering the full cost of early care and education in California on the low end, that's about $30 billion a year for child care and early learning. That's a system that is acceptable for families, that is universal and a system that is paying the people, mostly women, living wages.

Today we have a system where our workforce in child care is 80% of what it was in March of 2020. We didn't have enough before. We don't have enough now. And there's just not enough incentive for people to stay doing this work and to support the robust system that we need.

Have we ever done child care well in the United States?

Eileen Boris: WWII. War has a way of people focusing on what the government can do. It was during WWII, in 1943, that federal money for public facilities was used for child care. After the war, these funds dissipated from the federal government. But California parents and teachers and public organizations running the gamut came together to continue these child care centers in California. In 1957, they actually became part of the Department of Education.

But there was a hitch. Once you move from a program, which could benefit us all, to a program that is targeted for those of us with the least resources, then the program becomes stigmatized and it becomes associated not with education, but with uplifting of the poor.

As a parent, from your perspective, what would you like to see done?

Micaela Mota: What I would like to see done is that our country is able to see the importance of what child care means for our nation. I am now a school psychologist and continue to be a mental health provider and child care actually provides the foundation for all of the necessary skills that our children need once they enter school. I want for us to all know the importance of child care. I want us to all to be able to afford child care and see that it's a necessity — it's essential.

What California Is Currently Doing

Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, can you to talk briefly about what California is doing at this moment in time?

Deborah Stipek: This is really a wonderful time in California because we have a Legislature and governor who I think really appreciates the importance of those early years and the value in investing in the high-quality experiences for children in those early years. The current budget has a number of funding that it points to addressing some of the access problems that we've been talking about and also some strategies for increasing quality. These early years in children's development are laying the foundation for their future social and academic emotional development.

We know now with the research, that an enormous amount of brain development occurs in those first five years. The other thing that points to the importance of quality is that if you look at all of the evidence on the long-term benefits of preschool, it comes from very high-quality preschool programs. We can't assume that just increasing preschool or increasing child care is necessarily going to promote better experiences or long-term benefits for children. We really need to invest also in the quality of that care and those educational programs.

How Important Is Early Childhood Education?

One thing we haven't touched on is the importance of this kind of early childhood education for educational and life outcomes for kids. How big of a lever is this?

Deborah Stipek: It can be a pretty big lever. One thing I wanted to mention that I don't think many people know, is that the achievement gap that we worry about for children in K-12 actually exists before they enter kindergarten. California has a larger achievement gap than most other states in K-12. But the reason it is larger than most other states is that it has an unusually large gap between lower-income children and middle- and upper-income children when they enter kindergarten.

By providing high-quality early childhood educational opportunities, we can actually reduce those costs. Not only is the individual benefiting, but society is benefiting. Every dollar we invest in those first five years comes back to us multiple times. It's just hard to make an argument, I think, for people, for legislators who tend to think short term to get them focused on the long term.

There is going to be a universal transitional program here in California. Can you tell us a little more about it, and whether you think it's really going to to make a big impact?

Deborah Stipek: Providing care only to people who are eligible because of their very low income, such as in Head Start or in state pre-K is segregating low-income children — which the research suggests is not a good idea.

The research has shown that transitional kindergarten actually has many benefits for children. And when the studies have compared children who are in transitional kindergarten to same-age children who are in preschool settings, transitional kindergarten children actually are better prepared academically and they're no different socially and emotionally.

Again, I go back to the training and support of the teachers right now. As you all know, 4-year-olds are very different from 11-year-olds. People need to be well prepared to meet their developmental needs and to provide an appropriate and developmentally appropriate program. I would prefer having what most states have, which is an early childhood teacher credential that really prepares people to focus on young children.

Shifting Value

What's the way out of this logjam?

Lea Austin: It’s not that hard. The problem is a commitment and a valuing of early care and education in California and in this country. We know how technically to solve the problem.

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It's a matter of saying this is a critical part of our infrastructure. It's necessary to support families, it's necessary to support our economy, and it's necessary to make sure the people doing this work are not worried about feeding their own families. The problem is getting movement on that, getting the general public, and our legislators to support that in full.

Some of my colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute have done some estimates to help us understand what the harm is and what the loss is for not doing that. They've estimated that parents are foregoing $30-$35 billion in income and lost household income because they either have to leave the labor force, or reduce their hours.

There's a lot that we're losing now, there's ways in which people are harmed and there's a lot we can be doing to make change and improve the system.

Listen to KQED Forum to hear the full episode.


Additional reporting from The Associated Press's Don Thompson used in this report.