The passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) represents one the most significant investments in young children and their families in decades. Investments in child care, home visiting, Head Start, health care, housing assistance, mental health services, stable access to food, clean water and other supports for families will go a long way to alleviating many of the challenges and addressing the disparities that the pandemic has only intensified for America’s families.
As systems leaders begin to plan for how to implement these historic investments at the state and community level, there are a number of opportunities to ensure these funds produce the maximum impact for our children and families. We are excited to see many of the priorities in our Policy Agenda included in the legislation, including opportunities to support high-quality early childhood programs and services, build connected and comprehensive early learning systems, and engage families and elevate parent and caregiver voices, which we’ve outlined below.
Home Visiting Services: States will have the opportunity with the MIECHV funds to improve home visiting methods for virtual or hybrid programming, allow programs to address the intensified needs of families and ensure the workforce receives relevant training and support innovative approaches to family and caregiver engagement.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): While ARPA includes IDEA funds that are a step in the right direction, the legislation does not come close to providing up to 40 percent of the average cost per student, a commitment Congress made when IDEA was first passed in 1975. These funds will likely be spent on current interventions like professional development, additional technology and supplemental programming to address learning disruptions. While important in this moment, there remains a need for long-term investments in the workforce and increased access to programs.
Community Based Child Abuse Prevention: This funding can be used for a variety of prevention efforts, including home visiting and doula services. While it has long been acknowledged that children and families engaged with the child welfare system benefit from participation in quality early childhood programs, such programs have been significantly underfunded. There needs to be much more attention paid to ensuring more programs are specifically designed and resourced to provide additional supports to families.
Comprehensive Early Learning Systems
Child Care: The child care funding has a mix of one-time investments, a focus on stabilizing the fractured child care industry and a 10-year increase to the mandatory funding for the Child Care & Development Block Grant (CCDBG). These resources present a tremendous opportunity for states to lay down a foundation for a redesigned child care system — one grounded in equitable access and developed in partnership with families and providers. States can use the one-time funds to improve and update data systems, develop family child care networks, contract for supply building in historically disregarded communities and employment status, compensation parity for the workforce, improve subsidy payment rates and policies to be more reflective of the true cost of care, and more reliable revenue.
Elevating Family Voice and the Role of Families
Robust Parental Supports: The paid sick time and family leave payroll tax credits are a small step toward a much needed national family leave policy. Relationships with parents and other caregivers are critical to a baby’s early development and their long-term cognitive, social and emotional development. Enacting public policies that provide parents with paid leave from work to care for their young children helps families begin their journey on a strong foundation of caring, consistent relationships.
The tax credits for families have the potential to cut child poverty in half. Extending these credits beyond the current time frame, as proposed in the American Families Plan, would have a dramatic effect on the lives of young children: Children five years and younger are the population at the highest percentage living in poverty in our country. Additionally, the investments in housing, the extension of Medicaid postpartum health care to 12 months, and the temporary increases to SNAP and WIC should all be made permanent. We know that in order for children to thrive, their families must have access to good nutrition, quality health care, safe and secure housing and clean water.
Centering Parent and Caregiver Voice: As we continue our journey towards ensuring all children have equitable, quality early learning experiences, we must be certain to include the people most significantly affected by either a strong or failing system. Parents and caregivers have the clearest perspective of what families need from their own lived experiences. They know better than anyone how and why programs and policies fall short and what changes would improve outcomes. State leaders must work with families in meaningful ways to ensure these investments truly meet the needs of all children and families, especially those from under-resourced communities.
The early childhood resources and investments in the ARPA are a tremendous step in the right direction. The further increases to early childhood funding proposed in President Biden’s American Families Plan also lend a sense of hope to many of us in the early childhood field. However, there is still much to be done and shortcomings to address. We look forward to helping state and local leaders navigate the complex challenges required to driving systemic change and ensure their prenatal-to-age 5 systems are high-quality and integrated, are resourced to be sustainable, and are designed to serve children and families from historically marginalized communities.
National Policy Team members Mina Hong and Rio Romero-Jurado also contributed to this piece.