(WOMENSENEWS)—Here’s a good question for the next presidential debate you watch or the next politician you size up: What’s the plan for child care in this country?

And, more specifically, do you support that bill just introduced in Congress to increase federal funding for child care for the next five years?

Funds under the Child Care Access to Resources for Early-Learning Act, which will go to states in the form of block grants, are designed to supplement federal child care subsidies so more families can receive help paying for care for their infants and toddlers. Importantly, the bill also provides funds so states can improve training for child care providers, the vast majority of whom are women.

"How do I find good child care?" is a question most expectant parents and parents of small children ask in this country.

It is an especially critical consideration for middle- and low-income families. But the answer isn’t easy, because child care for infants and toddlers is in short supply in most of the country.

Colorado, for example, only has enough licensed child care slots to serve one-quarter of the state’s young children. And the same is true in Washington, D.C.

Across the country, the average annual cost of care ranges from $4,822 in Mississippi to $17,062 in Massachusetts. And worst of all, most of it isn’t very good.

Critical Years

The early years are critical to human development. In the first three years of life we forge the neural connections that form the architecture of our brains. Early learning experiences shape children’s cognitive abilities and lay the foundation for the "soft skills"—grit, resilience, the ability to delay gratification—that are essential for lifelong success.

Far too many children are not receiving these quality learning experiences. Across the United States, almost 11 million children are in child care, but only about 10 percent of child care programs offer high-quality care to children.

In most states, it costs more to pay for child care for an infant or toddler than it does to pay for college. For a typical family with two young children, child care is their single largest cost. A two-parent family with two children living in Washington, D.C., for example, can expect to pay $1,469 per month for housing, and $2,597 per month for child care. That’s a cost of $31,164 per year for child care, while the median household income for the area is just above $90,000 per year.

So most parents are paying more than they can afford for care that’s less than what their children deserve.

The picture is worse if you are a family in poverty. It’s true that families earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for Head Start, a federal program that provides comprehensive child care and family support to 3- and 4-year-olds. And families earning less than 85 percent of the median income for their states are eligible for subsidies through the Child Care Development Block Grant, a federal funding stream that provides vouchers to help pay for care.

But only 15 percent of eligible children actually receive these subsidies, finds a recent study from the Washington-based CLASP, a research and advocacy organization focused on issues of poverty.

Certain populations–Latino children in particular– are even less likely to receive subsidized child care. And families with very young children have fewer options,

Early Head Start, which expands Head Start services to children under the age of 3, serves only 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers.

Network of Allies

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Child care providers can form a network of powerful allies to transform care for children and families. Organizations such as All Our Kin in Connecticut, where I am the executive director; Satellite Family Child Care in Wisconsin; and Acre Family Child Care in Massachusetts offer such networks. The Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program has helped launch the creation of many more.

These caregivers—primarily women—operate small, home-based programs that are the primary source of child care for infants and toddlers in low-income neighborhoods. They face daunting challenges. Because of the expense, these caregivers often lack materials, equipment and supplies. They also lack formal training in child care.

And despite the high cost of care, they are underpaid. Our family child care providers earn, on average, $20,000 to $25,000 per year for the 40- to 60-hour weeks they spend caring for children.

In Connecticut, that income is hard earned caring for up to six full-time children, as well as up to three after-schoolers.

Many of these same providers are the most dedicated, hardworking and caring women that I have ever met.

It is true that, as with child care programs overall, the majority of these providers—over 90 percent—fail to provide high-quality care to children.

That failure is not inevitable though. When child care providers have access to training and support, they are able to provide substantially higher quality care to children. But most family child care providers work in isolation, without access to the networks that can make all the difference for both them and the children in their care.

And training alone is not enough. We also need to strengthen the subsidy programs available to low-income families, so that they can afford to pay for quality care for their young children.

The Child Care Access to Resources for Early-learning Act is a good first step.

Among other things the bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., D-Penn., Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., and Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., includes provisions for increasing compensation to child care providers and tying compensation levels to provider knowledge and skills. And it mandates that states make a plan for training and supporting child care providers—through, for example, family child care networks like those described above.

This is how we move toward a country where every child has access to quality learning environments.