Testimony to the House Democratic Policy Committee Hearing on Childcare in PA

Diana Polson |

Written by Diana Polson and delivered by Katy Personette, Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center

Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony today on the critical importance of state investment in our childcare system.

At this point, we are all aware of the tremendous impact that high-quality childcare and early childhood education have on a child’s future school performance and success. Our children’s brains go through their most rapid development in the first three years of life and a child’s environment plays a central role in this development. Kids who participate in quality early childhood education programs have shown higher cognitive abilities, greater academic achievement in reading and math, higher college attendance, and less involvement in crime than those who did not have access to quality childcare. Down the road, investments in quality childcare programs will lead to a stronger workforce and higher earnings, which will greatly benefit individuals who participated in these programs, and our state as a whole.[1] One study estimates that for each dollar we spend in early care and education programs the return to society is $17.[2]

Despite these well-known benefits, Pennsylvania continues to underinvest in our children during the critical developmental stages before kindergarten, from ages zero to five. Pennsylvania serves only 19% of the more than 200,000 children under age 5 living in families that are eligible for Pennsylvania’s Childcare Works subsidy program (CCW). And only about 41% of the children served are in high-quality programs.[3]

Our childcare crisis today is still aptly described by a phrase popularized by early childhood advocates in the 1990s: “Parents can’t afford to pay. Teachers can’t afford to stay. There’s got to be a better way.”

Parents can’t afford to pay

The Economic Policy Institute recently released state data on the cost of childcare across the United States.[4] In Pennsylvania, the average cost of infant care is $11,842 per year, which is $987 per month for one child. The cost for a four-year-old in care is slightly less: $9,773 per year or $814 per month. These amounts are 79% and two-thirds, respectively, of the full-time, full-year earnings of a minimum wage earner in Pennsylvania, given our minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

While there is often a lot of discussion among families and in the media about the cost of sending your child to college, there is less conversation about the cost of childcare. Yet in Pennsylvania, infant care costs just $2,692 less per year than in-state tuition at a public four-year college—that is 82% of college costs. Infant care costs more than the average cost of housing for a year—8.1% more ($11,842 compared to $10,879 for housing). These costs make quality care impossible to access for low-wage workers in our state without public support for such care.

Take for example minimum-wage workers earning $7.25 per hour in Pennsylvania. They would have to work full time (40 hours a week) for nearly 10 months to be able to afford infant care for one child. That is 79% of their yearly earnings.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set the affordability limit for childcare at 7% of one’s income. That is, childcare is considered affordable if it costs no more than 7% of a family’s income. But 7% is a long way from 79%. Even a two-parent family with both parents earning the minimum wage puts childcare wildly out of range—this family would need to spend 39% of its family income on childcare. Add in the cost of care for another child and the expense is impossible.


Lack of affordable and accessible childcare is a barrier to employment for Pennsylvanians with young children. In January 2020, a month or so before the pandemic in Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf’s Workforce Command Center identified access to quality childcare as one of five main barriers to employment for Pennsylvania residents. The Command Center highlighted both access to and affordability of childcare as barriers for job seekers.[5] Fast forward a year and a half later—our state has been ravaged by the pandemic and access to quality care has declined even further, with fewer regulated providers (now 6,900, down from 8,000).[6] Our state’s job numbers remain higher than pre-pandemic times, in part because of the lack of access and affordability of care—many parents cannot return to the labor force.

Teachers can’t afford to stay

One of the main challenges to accessible and affordable care, identified by the Command Center and known to everyone close to the industry, is staffing—recruitment and retention—primarily related to low wages in the industry. In 2020, the median wage for childcare workers in Pennsylvania was $10.69 per hour, which is right around the federal poverty line for a family of 3 for a full-time, full-year worker. Early educators in Pennsylvania pay a penalty for working with younger children, despite clear evidence of this developmental stage’s critical importance. In fact, early educators with a BA are paid 22% less than their colleagues in K-8 schools.[7]  Since the 1980s, such low pay, often with little access to benefits, has resulted in difficulty in retaining quality staff and more highly educated educators leaving the industry as documented in Losing Ground in Early Childhood Education, written by Keystone Research Center staff and published by the Economic Policy Institute in 2005. The childcare workforce is also aging which will continue to fuel the childcare crisis in future years if we don’t ensure these are quality jobs.

There’s got to be a better way!

The better way is stronger public investment in high-quality childcare, at both the federal and state levels. The unprecedented federal emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis provides us with a tremendous opportunity to invest in an industry and workforce that serves as a backbone for our economy. We saw this clearly during COVID when childcare centers and schools shut down, many parents could not work, and our economy ground to a halt.

Investment in quality childcare will help kids and families in the short term and allow parents to go back to work. In the long term, this investment will pay for itself, 17 times over. For the future of Pennsylvania, it is the smartest investment we could make.



[1] Pennsylvania Childcare Association. “Early Care and Education Research.” Accessed at: https://www.pacca.org/early_care_education_researc.php.

[2] “The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40: Summary, Conclusions, and Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed at: https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/specialsummary_rev2011_02_2.pdf.

[3] Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “Childcare Works in Pennsylvania, 2021.” Accessed at: https://papartnerships.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=25068de383324f58a3d474b5bc881f3e.

[4] Economic Policy Institute. “The Cost of Childcare in Pennsylvania.” Accessed at: https://www.epi.org/child-care-costs-in-the-united-states/#/PA.

[5] Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center. “Annual Report: Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center,” January 2020. Accessed at: https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/20200127-Workforce-Command-Center-Annual-Report.pdf.

[6] Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “Childcare Works in Pennsylvania, 2021.” Accessed at: https://papartnerships.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=25068de383324f58a3d474b5bc881f3e.

[7] Center for the Study of Childcare Employment. “Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020: Pennsylvania.” Accessed at: https://cscce.berkeley.edu/workforce-index-2020/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/11/2020-Index_StateProfile_Pennsylvania.pdf.