Ensuring Access to High-Quality Child Care

A child’s most critical developmental and learning experiences begin at birth and occur in partnership with parents and caregivers. The quality of a child’s early experiences lays either a strong or a shaky foundation for all that follows. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the child care sector in Colorado, child care capacity was already far too limited to be able to serve all of the young children in our state who likely need care. In 2019, over 246,000 Colorado kids under 6 lived in families where all available parents were in the labor work force, while Colorado’s licensed child care centers, family child care homes and preschools only had the capacity to serve approximately 152,000 children – only 62% of Colorado’s young children. This left 94,000 young children and their families to rely on other forms of care.  

The majority of Colorado’s youngest children live in households where all parents work, making child care a necessity for most families. Without strong federal and state support for quality early experiences, many working families struggle to find affordable child care. This creates even greater barriers to access for children in households with low incomes, making it increasingly difficult for parents to maintain employment. The pandemic has also exacerbated the health concerns of families facing barriers to acquiring high-quality, affordable child care. While many parents who gave birth during the pandemic reported needing mental health care, cost of care and a lack of child care were significant factors in their inability to pursue this needed mental health support. On average, one year of child care for an infant in Colorado costs $15,600 in a child care center and $10,400 in a family child care home.

a group children in a classroom around a table
Denver, CO- Classrooms at Clayton Early Learning in Denver on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon)

Assessing the Pandemic’s Widespread Impact on Child Care

Nearly one in 10 child care providers closed across Colorado during the pandemic, and total enrollment dropped by more than half. Although some providers eventually reopened, many reported they were uncertain they would be able to continue operating. Between February and April 2020, the child care industry in the U.S. lost more than 373,000 jobs. Early Milestones Colorado’s research also found that 64% of Colorado families reported having to alter their child care arrangements due to the COVID crisis, with one third reporting they did not have the child care they needed at the time they were surveyed. Fears about children’s health and safety during the pandemic topped the list of barriers to care reported by families who were surveyed. Colorado’s Black, Asian and Indigenous households, as well as households earning less than $25,000 per year, were the least likely to report having the child care they needed. This is just one of many ways in which the pandemic has disproportionately impacted families of color and families facing economic barriers. 

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The pandemic has also intensified existing gender-based inequities in pay and caregiving responsibilities, driving labor force participation rates among women down to levels not seen since 1988. An analysis from the Congressional Budget office estimates that approximately one million U.S. mothers left the labor force between late 2019 and late 2020, compared to only half a million fathers. When child care settings and schools closed, mothers largely bore the burden. Increased caregiving responsibilities at home and an inability to find child care continue to be cited by many parents – particularly among parents with low incomes, Hispanic/Latino and Black parents – as limitations on their families’ economic opportunity. In Colorado, 42,000 mothers left the workforce between February and September 2020 and had not reentered as of October 2020. Meanwhile, labor force participation rates among women without kids, men with kids and men without kids were all higher in September than in February 2020. These data indicate that strengthening Colorado’s child care system will be a key strategy in ensuring that mothers are able to return to the labor force if they choose to do so. 

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Recent Policy Successes

HB 21-1304 established the Colorado Department of Early Childhood as a cabinet-level state agency focused on better meeting the needs of children, families, and service providers in the early childhood sector and set Colorado on a path to implement Universal Preschool.

SB 21-236 supports the early care and education workforce, as well as innovation in the early care and education sector, by creating and expanding several grant programs aimed at increasing child care capacity throughout the state. 

HB 21-1311 increases and expands the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and funds the state Child Tax Credit (CTC) – two of the most effective tools for eliminating child poverty. 

HB 21-1222 increases access to child care by reducing burdensome regulations that family child care homes face by requiring local regulatory entities to treat licensed family child care providers as residences for regulatory purposes like zoning, fire, and building codes. 

HB 19-1013 extends the low-income Child Care Expenses Tax Credit for 8 years (continuing $3M tax credit). 

Budget Successes 

  • In 2020, the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) received a $5.6 million increase to support access to quality early care and education for working families. This is the seventh consecutive year of increases. 
  • In 2020, an increase of $10.5 million for Colorado Department of Human Services to continue to provide quality child care via the CCCAP. 
  • In 2020, Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+) received $26.2 million increase to ensure children and pregnant people do not lose coverage during the health crisis.