All parents ask themselves “Is my child prepared?” as they think about the first day of kindergarten. Some begin pondering this question even before their child enters a pre-k program. Preparing children for school begins well before they step inside the classroom. Developmental studies increasingly show the importance of a child’s first five years of life. According to a study by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the first twelve months of a child’s life hold particular importance, as sensory pathways, language and higher cognitive function development all peak during this window.1
During these formative years, many children spend their days in child care of one form or another (day care, pre-kindergarten, etc.). For families in which all parents in the household work, child care is a necessity and high-quality programs that foster development in this critical time are desirable and indispensable. In Mecklenburg County, sixty-five percent (56,329) of all children under age six lived in homes where all parents worked in 2009, indicating the great demand for high-quality early child care.2
In terms of child care capacity, two types of programs are of particular importance: publicly sponsored pre-kindergarten programs and child care programs with four or five star ratings. Between 2006 and 2010, publicly sponsored pre-kindergarten program capacity decreased slightly, with the ability to serve 5,363 children in 2010 (Figure 1).3 Over this same time period, high-quality four and five star child care program capacity grew 19.9% from 31,387 to 37,628 slots (Figure 1).3 Despite the rise in capacity of high-quality child care programs, they still fail to keep pace with the volume necessary to serve all children in need of quality child care.
Moreover, with the average annual fees ranging from $7,072 to $9,828 per child under five, these high-quality early child care programs are not always affordable options for low-income families.3 In recent years, the number of low-income families has grown while the number receiving assistance for child care has not. In Mecklenburg County, the number of children under five years old in poverty grew 61.7%, from 9,880 children in 2006 to 15,975 children in 2009.4 Conversely, the average number of children receiving child care subsidies decreased by 406 individuals between 2006 and 2010 (Figure 2).3 Meanwhile, the average monthly waiting list for child care subsidies has volleyed around 6,200 children over the past five years, and even this number does not represent the county’s full need.3 At Child Care Resource, Inc.’s June 2010 count, there were 5,386 children on the waiting list for subsidies.3
Considering the failure of the child care subsidy supply in keeping up with growing need, many families in need of child care go without. According to families calling the Child Care Search in June 2010, 71% of parents listed costs as the reason they could not find child care and another 23% of parents listed that they were waiting for financial assistance (Figure 3).3 Without affordable and accessible child care, parents often face difficult choices concerning employment and educational opportunities that would help them provide for their families, making child care as much of an economic issue as it is an educational and development issue.
Early child care and education are pressing and growing needs in our community. As the number of children under age five, and particularly those in poverty, continues to increase, the need for high-quality and affordable early child care programs is greater than ever. This need is two-fold: providing a stimulating environment for children during their most crucial developmental years and allowing parents to work and contribute to the household income. In order to meet the growing need for early child care and education, child care subsidies, publicly sponsored pre-kindergarten programs, and affordable high-quality child care must all increase capacity, allowing all parents to have confidence in their child’s preparation for school and future success.
Hannah Guerrier wrote this article while a graduate student working at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute in 2011/2012.
1 Nelson, CA (2000). Neural plasticity and human development: The role of early experience in sculpting memory systems. Developmental Science 3: 115-130. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-7687.00104/pdf
2 U.S. Census Bureau. American Community Survey, Table B23008. Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/acs/www/
3 Child Care Resources, Inc. Early Care & Education Demographics Report: Mecklenburg County. Retrieved from:http://www.childcareresourcesinc.org/publications-and-multimedia/data-reports/
4 U.S. Census Bureau. American Community Survey, Table B17001. Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/acs/www/