Military Child Care: Modeling Success for the Civilian World

Families in America are facing a child care crisis. No doubt you’ve heard: Child care is expensive, high-quality care can hard to find, and the child care workforce struggles to make ends meet. Working families, especially those with young children, cannot catch a break. For instance, in August 2017, parents camped out overnight on the sidewalks of New York for the chance at entering the lottery for a coveted slot in a new child care center. It sounds absurd, but I don’t blame parents for wanting their child to have access to high-quality child care that won’t break the bank. In fact, I commend them for it.

There is one place we can look to for a path forward: The military has solved for many of the key challenges that plague civilian child care. Some even call the U.S. military’s on-base child care system the best in the world. Here’s how the civilian and military systems stack up, head to head.

First, civilian child care is expensive. The average cost of full-time care ranges from nearly $3,000 to more than $17,000 per year. This is a massive financial burden. Families with two children requiring simultaneous full-time care (there is often no discount for a second child) can be faced with the tough decision of whether or not it makes more financial sense for one parent to stay at home. Single parent households, of course, do not have a choice.

The military has solved this by subsidizing the cost of child care on a sliding scale and capping family contributions at approximately 12 percent of a family’s income, no matter how many children they have in child care. Imagine, for example, that a family is blessed with twins. Those parents’ out of pocket contribution for their children’s care would still be capped at approximately 12 percent of their income. This enables parents to continue advancing their career and providing for their family.

Second, there’s a lack of high-quality options in the civilian world. High-quality early learning opportunities are critical given the importance of the early years to a child’s development and future success. In their earliest years, children learn critical social and emotional skills that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their life, including when they enter school and eventually the workforce. One way of assessing quality is to look for a NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) accreditation which sets professional standards for early learning programs. Currently, an estimated 6.7 percent of the nation’s total early care and education providers have earned NAEYC accreditation.

On the contrary, the military has long-valued and prioritized quality. As far back as 2000, at least 95 percent of military child care providers held a NAEYC accreditation. In 2016, the Department of Defense ran more than 800 child development centers in the United States alone, and their accreditation rate has stayed steady.

Finally, it is critically important to recognize that the entire civilian child care system is built on the backs of low-wage workers, an overwhelming percentage of whom are women. Child care providers make an average of only $11.02 per hour, and many with children of their own rely on public assistance to get by. It is unconscionable that the hardworking people who care for our most precious resource are paid less than parking lot attendants.

In the military, child care teachers are compensated on par with other Department of Defense employees with similar educational and experiential qualifications. This means that child care providers who serve military families are able to make a living wage and provide for their own families.

Regarding the U.S. military’s child care system, there is much to be proud of. But I hope by now you are wondering what we need in order to replicate this success in the civilian world so that ALL working families can thrive and ALL children can succeed. The answer is really quite simple: money.

The main federal child care assistance program available to civilians is called the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). It offers subsidies to very low-income families to help them afford child care. In 39 states, a family making more than 200 percent of poverty rate would be ineligible to receive assistance. In Missouri, for example, a family of three making more than $27,816 per year would make too much to qualify. Moreover, due to insufficient funding, only one out of every six eligible children actually receives support.

In the military, funding for child care and early learning is included in the Department of Defense’s budget. That’s right — every year, a portion of the Pentagon’s budget goes towards subsidizing child care for military families because it is integrally important to their success. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. Our men and women in uniform go to work every day knowing that their children are well cared for. Civilian parents should demand the same.

Jessica Church is a Political Partner with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.

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