Commentary: The future rests with Utah’s youngest residents — so expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

With tax reform shaping up as the next big debate on Capitol Hill, the conversation to date has primarily focused on closing loopholes and lowering rates. But with a common goal of using reform to strengthen the U.S. economy for the long-haul, lawmakers should remember that America’s future rests with its children.

By expanding accessibility to high-quality early learning and child care, families will be better positioned to support young children during the critical early periods of their lives, setting them up for success later in life. However, these high-quality early learning and care opportunities are becoming less and less accessible for too many of Utah’s hardworking families, resulting in a dangerous trend that will harm not only them, but the broader economy, as well.

In Utah, the average cost of childcare is $9,183 per year. To put this in context, a married couple living at the poverty line with two children has to spend an average of 81.4 percent of their annual income to access center-based child care. It’s time we take action to ensure high-quality early childhood learning and care programs do not break the bank for America’s working families.

Research has shown that these early years in a child’s life play a vital role in setting up the foundation of success for the rest of their life. A recently updated study by Nobel Laureate James Heckman found that high-quality early childhood education provides society with a return of $7.30 for every dollar invested. This return has compounding benefits, meaning high-quality early education gives children a better chance at enjoying substantially improved social and educational outcomes in subsequent stages of life.

Our organization--the First Five Years Fund--is committed to supporting robust federal programs and initiatives that bolster opportunities for low- and middle-income children. Such programs include Head Start, Early Head Start, Child Care Development Block Grants, and home visiting programs.

Despite these programs’ successes, they sometimes fall short of providing the families that need it most with viable child care options, ultimately harming our nation’s economic performance.

For example, employee absenteeism due to child care issues results in a loss of $3 billion for U.S. businesses annually. Furthermore, children without access to high-quality child care lag behind their peers; without a strong start in the most formative years of their life, these children often stay behind in the years to come.

Fortunately, tax reform gives us an opportunity to address these pressing issues at a critical juncture of policymaking, and Americans are calling on Congress to act. Our new national poll shows that 79 percent of voters from across the political spectrum want Congress to improve both the quality and affordability of early childhood education and care.

The First Five Years Fund is looking to U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman and Utah’s own Sen. Orrin Hatch to ensure Congress prioritizes improving access to high-quality early childhood education through tax reform. As our organization wrote in a recent letter addressed to Hatch, in order to achieve these goals, tax writers should expand the Child Care Dependent Tax Credit and make it refundable. These changes would allow working families to provide their children with access to high-quality early learning and care opportunities that they deserve and that our economy needs.

Congress can also take action to extend the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. Initiatives like MIECHV use evidence-based strategies and have demonstrated proven results, specifically by targeting at-risk children and providing an alternative to center-based child care.

On these important issues, Utah Sens. Hatch and Mike Lee are positioned to lead. Tax reform is an opportunity for Congress to achieve its goal of providing real support for working families across the nation. By expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, lawmakers can improve the lives of America’s most vulnerable children while enjoying the amplifying benefits inherent in these efforts. We encourage them to do so in an effort to make high-quality early learning and child care a reality for all families.

Kris Perry is the executive director at the First Five Years Fund, Washington, D.C.