Early Childcare Uplifts Arlington’s Kids


Early childcare, man feeding childArlington Thrive is committed to creating Pathways to Prosperity that advance economic prosperity for every resident in Arlington County, Virginia. Throughout the month of January, our primary focus revolves around “Secure Beginnings for Better Futures.” This theme underscores the vital importance of affordable childcare, serving as the cornerstone for establishing a secure foundation and fostering the growth of resilient, thriving families.

High-quality, affordable childcare allows parents to enter and stay in the workforce and provides critical early learning experiences for children. However, in Arlington and across the country, the high cost of care puts quality childcare out of reach for many working families. This situation threatens young children’s healthy development, educational outcomes, and future economic prosperity. It also impacts workforce participation, as parents struggle with the “choice” between paying for care or paying the bills.

The Pathways to Prosperity campaign seeks to underscore why affordable, high-quality childcare must be a priority, not only as a work support for parents, but even more importantly as a vital early childhood service that nurtures children’s growth, development and school readiness. Investment in early care and education provides long-term benefits to children, families and communities. The campaign’s first two weeks on “Secure Beginnings” will highlight the need for expanded access, affordability and quality in order to give every child a strong and equitable start.

The High Cost of Childcare

Childcare costs in the United States are prohibitively expensive for many families. The average annual cost of center-based infant care exceeds $25,000 in Virginia, making it one of the most expensive states for childcare in the nation. In Arlington specifically, infant care at a childcare center costs over $23,000 per year on average.

For perspective, in-state tuition at a 4-year public college in Virginia is around $13,000 annually. Childcare often costs families more than college tuition, housing, transportation or food expenses. As a result, many families spend over 10-20% of their household income on childcare. Lower income families may spend up to 35% or more of their earnings on care for young children.

These high costs present difficult trade-offs for parents. Some are forced to leave the workforce entirely to provide care at home. Others take on second jobs or overtime hours to cover the expense. Many go into debt or rely on multiple forms of public assistance. The financial strain can negatively impact relationships and family stability.

Simply put, quality childcare has become unaffordable for many Arlington families. Action must be taken at the policy level to address this crisis, so parents are not forced to choose between their children and economic security.

Impact on Families

Family with infantThe high cost of childcare places an immense financial strain on families. Parents are forced to make difficult tradeoffs to afford care for their children. Many families end up spending over 10% of their annual income on childcare, with some spending 25% or more. This reduces funds available for other critical needs like housing, transportation, food, and healthcare.

To pay these high childcare costs, families have to make sacrifices. Parents take second jobs or work longer hours to try to make ends meet. They go into debt and deplete savings. Some even forgo food, medical care, or move into substandard housing in order to afford childcare. Many parents are forced out of the workforce entirely because the cost of care exceeds their income. This creates even more financial hardship and instability for families.

The burden is especially heavy for low-income families. While more affluent families spend a lower percentage of income on childcare, low-income families are often devastated by childcare costs. This leads to difficult tradeoffs between quality care and household necessities. Many are forced to rely on unlicensed or substandard care or patch together inadequate supervision from relatives. This challenging situation can negatively impact child development.

In summary, the extraordinary cost of care negatively affects parents’ employment and families’ economic security. It drains limited budgets and harms children’s wellbeing. Affordable high-quality childcare is essential to alleviate this financial strain on Arlington families and provide children a secure foundation.

Child Development

Research has proven that the early years of a child’s life are critical for cognitive, social, and emotional development. High-quality childcare and early education provide an enriching environment that nurtures growth across all developmental domains.

During the first five years, a child’s brain develops rapidly, forming neural connections that lay the foundation for future learning. Early care helps build critical skills in areas like language, literacy, numeracy, reasoning, and problem solving. Activities and interactions with attentive caregivers stimulate brain development. Without these experiences, children fall behind early on.

In addition to cognitive gains, childcare supports social and emotional maturation. Being around other children and responsive adults helps children master self-regulation, communication skills, confidence, curiosity, and relationship building. Early education teaches children how to share, cooperate, resolve conflicts peacefully, and interact positively in a group setting.

The security and stability provided by consistent caregiving is vital at this stage. Attachment to nurturing providers builds trust and resilience. In safe, supportive environments, children become more independent, learning how to express emotions and gain control over impulses and behavior.

High-quality, affordable childcare plays a crucial role during the vulnerable early years when the architecture of the brain is shaped for a lifetime. The developmental gains from caregiving and early learning opportunities have profound and lasting impacts.

The Achievement Gap

Access to high-quality pre-K and early learning opportunities helps close achievement gaps that emerge early on between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. Without equitable access to these critical developmental opportunities, the gaps only continue to widen as children progress through school.

By kindergarten, there are already significant gaps in literacy and math skills between children from the lowest and highest income families. One study found that children from low-income families knew less than half as many words as their peers from high-income families when starting school. These early gaps lead to long-term disparities in academic achievement and educational attainment.

Children from lower-income families are also less likely to have access to the enriching early learning experiences that help build critical cognitive and social-emotional skills needed to thrive in school. Attending pre-K programs prepares children for the structure and socialization of kindergarten, while supporting healthy development across all domains.

Without high-quality, affordable childcare and pre-K opportunities prior to starting school, children from disadvantaged backgrounds start off behind from the very beginning. Investing in equitable access to early learning and care is essential to narrowing achievement gaps and setting all children up for success.

Long-Term Consequences

Research shows that the effects of early childhood experiences extend far beyond childhood, impacting outcomes in adulthood and even old age. Children who receive high-quality, nurturing care in their early years tend to have higher educational attainment, higher earnings, better health, and lower rates of crime and incarceration compared to those who lack access to affordable high-quality childcare.

Several longitudinal studies have tracked children from early childhood to adulthood, following their development and life outcomes over time. These studies consistently find that children who attended high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and secure higher-paying jobs. For example, the Abecedarian Project provided high-quality childcare and preschool to children from low-income families beginning in infancy. By age 30, participants had completed more years of education, were four times more likely to graduate college, and had higher incomes compared to the control group.

The economic benefits are not just for individuals but for society at large. Nobel laureate James Heckman estimates a 7-10% per year return on investment for comprehensive early childhood programs due to increased economic productivity, reduced costs of remedial education, lower crime rates, and less welfare dependency. High-quality early care helps build critical cognitive and social-emotional skills in early childhood that pay dividends across the lifespan.

In contrast, insecure, unstable, or low-quality care in the first five years has detrimental effects. Children exposed to significant adversity without interventions are more likely to struggle academically, drop out of school, engage in criminal activity, and have lower lifetime earnings. The damage of poor early childhood conditions is difficult and costly to undo later in life.

Investing in early care and education for all children lays a strong foundation for their future success, not just academically and economically, but for their overall health, wellbeing, and productivity. Affordable, high-quality childcare provides the nurturing, stimulating environment children need to build crucial cognitive, emotional and social skills. These early investments have cascading benefits over time, leading to a more just, equitable society.


Current Childcare Resources

In Arlington, there are a few existing programs that aim to assist families with childcare costs:

Arlington Thrive’s Childcare Program

Our Childcare Coordinator plays a critical role in supporting childcare providers through the process needed to accept subsidies and provide affordable childcare slots for families in need.  She also assists  families to file their eligibility paperwork for the childcare subsidy and matches them with providers that match their linguistic, location, and scheduling needs.  Thrive bridges the gap for clients by paying fees which are not covered by the subsidy. Families must meet income eligibility requirements.

Early Head Start and Head Start

Early Head Start and Head Start are comprehensive early childhood programs for income-eligible families that promote school readiness through education, health, nutrition and family engagement services. These federally funded programs, provide free pre-school education for children ages 0-5 years from income-eligible families. There are three locations around Arlington County that participate.

Virginia Preschool Initiative

The Virginia Preschool Initiative provides state funding for high-quality preschool education for at-risk four-year-olds who are not served by Head Start. In Arlington Public Schools, this funding supports preschool classes offered at a few of the elementary schools. Families must meet income eligibility requirements.

Arlington County Public Schools (ACPS) Pre-K

Arlington Public Schools offer a tuition-based preschool program for four-year-olds who miss the kindergarten age cutoff. While not free, the cost is lower than private preschools in the county. Pre-K classes are located in some of the elementary schools.

While these programs help many families, there remain gaps and barriers that prevent access to affordable, quality childcare for all. More work is needed to ensure secure beginnings for Arlington’s children.

Arlington County Public Schools (APS) Community Peer and Montessori Toddler Programs

Arlington Public Schools (APS) offer a tuition-based toddler program through the Community Peer program for children from 2.5 – 3 years of age.  This program supports both children with disabilities and a limited number of children without disabilities (1/3 of the slots) for 25 hours a week.  APS also offers a tuition-based Montessori program for 3 year olds at six participating elementary schools.

These programs are able to help a limited number of children via a lottery system.  It is important to note, however, that the limited availability of slots means that not every toddler in Arlington can be accommodated. This shortfall highlights the pressing need for continued efforts to expand educational opportunities and secure a promising start for all of Arlington’s children.

Barriers to Access

Preschool childrenFor many families in Arlington, securing high-quality, affordable childcare remains out of reach due to several key barriers:


There is a shortage of licensed childcare facilities and spots available in the county, especially for infants and toddlers under 3 years old. Center-based care has long waitlists, while home-based care is limited in capacity. This forces many parents to patch together arrangements with relatives, friends or neighbors, which can be unreliable.


While Arlington has some high-quality programs, there is unevenness in quality across the county’s childcare centers. Factors like high teacher turnover, low pay and inadequate professional development undermine consistency. Standards and oversight for home-based care are more variable. This results in uneven early learning experiences that can impact child outcomes.


Quality childcare is expensive, often rivaling the cost of college tuition. The average annual cost of center-based infant care is $24,350 according to a recent report by the Arlington Community Foundation. This amounts to over 23% of the median family income in Arlington. While subsidies are available, income cutoffs limit access for many middle-class families. The high costs force difficult tradeoffs between quality and affordability.


Childcare in Arlington is an issue that impacts us all, as parents and as a community. Affordable, quality childcare lays the foundation for children’s success in school and throughout their lives. But high costs put this critical support out of reach for many Arlington families.

Widespread lack of access to affordable childcare has ripple effects on children, parents, employers, and our community. Children miss out on early learning and socialization. Parents face difficult trade-offs between work and caregiving. Employers experience turnover and lost productivity.

As we’ve discussed, the research clearly shows affordable childcare’s benefits for children’s learning, development, and future achievement. High-quality childcare prepares children for success in school and beyond. But cost barriers contribute to disparities and inequality of opportunity from the very start.

This is a community issue requiring community-wide action. Arlington’s future prosperity depends on doing better for our kids. We must come together to expand access to affordable, high-quality childcare. This investment in our youngest residents pays dividends now and for generations to come.

Join us and make childcare a priority.


“2023 Status Report: Affordable Child Care in Arlington – Arlington Community Foundation.” Arlington Community Foundation, 10 July 2023, www.arlcf.org/news-events/2023-childcare-status-report.

Bailey-Boorsma, Joanne. “Underfunding Early Child Care Has Far-reaching Impacts.” Every Child Thrives, 16 Nov. 2023, everychildthrives.com/underfunding-early-child-care-has-far-reaching-impacts.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project. abc.fpg.unc.edu.

GGI Insights. “Early Childhood Development: The Crucial Role of Quality Education.” Gray Group International, 12 Dec. 2023, www.graygroupintl.com/blog/early-childhood-development. Accessed 14 Jan. 2024.

“Interactive 2023 Data Book – the Annie E. Casey Foundation.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 16 June 2023, www.aecf.org/interactive/databook?d=ed&l=51.

Jim. “Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits, Strengthen the Economy.” The Heckman Equation, 15 Feb. 2017, heckmanequation.org/resource/invest-in-early-childhood-development-reduce-deficits-strengthen-the-economy.