For parents of young children still reeling from inflation and high housing costs, the last thing they need is another spiking bill. Yet across the country, that’s exactly what is happening: As federal relief funds dry up, child care programs are faced with the choice of raising already prohibitive fees or closing altogether. The sheer breadth of the child care pain point is why there is a sliver of hope that Congress can muster enough bipartisan gusto to pass the $16 billion of child care funding in President Joe Biden’s supplemental domestic funding request.

Because the modern economy makes it exceedingly difficult for families to operate on one income, progress on this issue needs to cross partisan lines. A quick scan of local headlines reveals parents gasping for help in deeply conservative areas like IdahoUtah and upstate Maine. As Republican Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said in a recent hearing, “Being opposed to affordable child care is like being opposed to golden retrievers.”

The challenge goes beyond mere economic productivity. The livelihoods of entire communities are at stake. In Montrose, a western Colorado city of about 20,000 in which 67% of the residents voted for Donald Trump in 2020, the police force is struggling to maintain adequate staffing because so many officers leave after having a child. In tiny Shickley, Nebraska, a rural town of only 341, child care is seen as one of the main factors behind whether the town can keep families — and thus have a future. And for far too many families in both small towns and big cities, the most basic freedom of choosing how many children to have is shaped not by desire but by child care availability. Whether or not one has children, everyone has a stake in child care — much as all of society has a stake in a strong education system.

There are plenty of arguments to be had about what the ideal American child care system should look like. The political parties have yet to hash out how to best support what conservative analyst Patrick T. Brown calls “child care pluralism” — the idea that whether it’s a community child care center, a faith-based program or a grandmother providing care, public policy should aid families in acquiring the care they need to thrive. The role of public policy in supporting stay-at-home parents remains underexamined. And, as Kennedy said in that same hearing, the question of how to pay for a publicly supported child care system is critical. But these are not the immediate questions at hand.

Instead, the short-term reality is that around 7 million children — in red states and blue — are in paid child care programs every day, and many of these programs have raised their rates, or are likely to in the coming months. A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 43% of child care centers and 37% of home-based providers nationwide expect they will have to charge parents more. 

That might be an undercount; a separate survey in Texas reported nearly three-quarters of programs there expect fee hikes. Closures are a real threat, as well. In recent weeks, for example, a network of seven child care centers in western North Carolina announced it is closing because of inadequate funding, as did a church-based program in South Dakota.

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The $16 billion requested by the Biden administration would extend a stabilization grant program which directly funded child care programs, allowing them to raise staff wages and keep fees from exploding. While that program was originally pandemic relief, the child care sector faces a difficult new post-pandemic normal; unlike other industries, there is no snapback to February 2020 on the horizon. Therefore, this funding can be seen as a necessary bridge until a more permanent solution is found.

The economics of child care are unforgiving: It is an expensive service to provide because of how many people it (rightly) takes to maintain low child-to-adult ratios. Those expenses became even higher as competitor industries like retail and fast food raised their compensation and the price of supplies like diapers went up. Without public money defraying rising operating costs, programs have nowhere to turn but parents — or closure. As journalist Annie Lowrey has put it, “The math does not work. It will never work. No other country makes it work without a major investment from government.”

While elected officials figure out what that major investment looks like going forward, Congress must pass the $16 billion needed to keep the child care sector functional and keep parent fees down. Even in this era of partisan rancor and intra-party dysfunction, every elected official should be able to find an angle and message that allows them to get to aye. There’s a reason child care polls so well. Whether it is for economic productivity, family values, birth rates, gender equality or even national defense, America needs a robust and inclusive child care system. It’s a kitchen-table issue, and parents are paying attention. If Congress wants to show the American people that it has their best interests at heart, supporting American families is a good place to start.

Elliot Haspel is a senior fellow at the think tank Capita and author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.” The views expressed are his own.

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