With low childcare supply, long waitlists, and very high costs, families are struggling. Compared to 2019, millions of women remain out of the labor force. And we all pay for families’ problems, personally or collectively, through lost educational or economic opportunities–and slower economic growth, now and in the future.

But these struggles to find and afford child care are not new. They are decades old, and they are a consequence of our collective failure to invest in early education–making our current choices more critical. Recognizing the inflection point our society is staring down, more than 120 of our nation’s leading economists and policy experts are sounding the alarm about the urgent economic case for building a child care system that actually works for families.

Right now, Congress is debating the Build Back Better Act that, among other benefits, would dramatically expand opportunities for affordable, high-quality early learning by ensuring preschool and child care are available to millions of children in low- and middle-income families while raising the wages of their educators, who are currently paid around $12 per hour. Researchers estimate child care investments would create more than two million jobs, both from parents (re)entering the workforce and in early care and education itself. The bill is on course to move to the Senate, where senators have the option to pass powerful, timely legislation that would provide families with the help they need to make ends meet and the enriching educational experiences that set young children on a path for success in kindergarten and beyond. Passing this legislation would represent a sea-change in how we value the developmentally critical first few years of life – and be of enormous economic value to every American.

We now have decades of evidence showing that increased access to affordable, high-quality early care and education has economic benefits on multiple levels: Increasing parental labor force participation; improving children’s short- and long-term educationalhealth, and economic outcomes; and growing the early care and education as an economic sector itself. But unlike our peer nations, the U.S. lags behind in public investments to educate our youngest children–when brain development is most rapid and parents are at their lowest earning years. This puts American businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Yet, many children–disproportionately those in low-income families–miss out on educational experiences altogether, generating inequalities well before children first step into the kindergarten classroom. That is, we ask the most families when they have the least–and at a time when it means the most. As a result, parents struggle to pay the high expenses of childcare or drop out of the labor force altogether, at a high cost to families and the broader economy.

Investments in early care and education will support family economic security while boosting U.S. growth and competitiveness. These investments are all the more important in the wake of the pandemic’s devastation. The question now is whether the Senate will send this critical legislation to the president’s desk. As both a researcher and a parent, I certainly hope so.