Child care is one of the biggest expenses many families face — in much of the country, it can run higher than college tuition. Could a national child care program ease that burden?
We’ve come close before. During World War II, the federal government provided child care around the clock to enable more women to work in the war industries. In 1971, we nearly got a national child care program until President Richard Nixon vetoed legislation that had strong bipartisan support.
Now, with Senator Joe Manchin stalling President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, we could be on the brink of another disappointment. Or, if the bill can be rescued, our country may get another opportunity to make a historic investment in our future.
Among many other things, the Build Back Better Act would cap child care payments for working families at no more than 7 percent of their income — while raising wages for child care workers.
The U.S. is far behind other affluent — and even less affluent — nations, in the support it provides families with children. In 2017, the U.S. was 37th of the 38 OECD countries in its spending on family benefits including child care, at less than two-thirds of one percent of GDP.
Only Turkey trailed us. The United Kingdom, a lot like us in many ways, spends more than five times as much as the United States.
Yet the economic case for investing in early childhood education and care is strong. Universal preschool is a two-generation anti-poverty strategy that also benefits the middle class. Decades of research find that it reduces inequality by gender, race, ethnicity and income. Children from families with lower incomes gain the most, but all children make gains.
As it is now, young children have the highest poverty rates of any age group in this country — and the cost of child care helps explain why.
Child care is simply so expensive that many parents, especially mothers, cannot afford to work, which permanently lowers their lifetime incomes. Single mothers, who are raising almost a quarter of U.S. children, are particularly vulnerable.
Women’s ability to work in the U.S. is falling behind other countries — including Germany, Canada, and Japan — due to our weak family policies. But we don’t have to look far to find successful examples of public investments in child care. Washington, D.C.’s universal preschool program has increased the labor force participation of mothers by 10 percentage points, raising family incomes.
Care like this isn’t just good for parents. High quality preschool eases the transition to kindergarten and raises high school graduation rates, college attendance, and incomes. Down the line, it also reduces unemployment, crime, incarceration and other social ills.
Even families without kids benefit. The higher the education rate in a locality, the higher the wages are for everyone, regardless of their education, because companies can be more productive with a skilled labor force.
Finally, part of ensuring quality child care means paying child care workers salaries comparable to elementary school teachers. Without decent wages to support their families, these jobs see very high turnover — which limits the experience and relationships that are critical to quality care.
Federal investment in early childhood and care is long overdue. It’s the best economic development project we could undertake, with significant gains to the community as a whole, as well as to children, their families, and preschool workers.
The rest of the wealthy world has far lower rates of child poverty, a critical predictor of future marginalization, than we do — largely because they invest much more in their children. Let’s not waste another 50 years before investing in our children, our families, and our future.
Mary C. King is a Professor of Economics Emerita at Portland State University. This op-ed was adapted from Inequality.org and distributed by OtherWords.org.