The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The $90 billion question: Do we need government-supplied daycare?

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The paradox of American child care continues to perplex parents. It’s increasingly expensive for young families nationwide, devouring mortgage-sized shares of household income, even while child care workers remain among the country’s lowest-paid workers.

The consequences: Top-notch programs are available to those who can afford the tuition, once they get off the waiting lists and everyone else is left gambling on quality, even safety

Take Washington, D.C., where the average yearly cost of full-time care for infants is about $22,000. But the annual mean wage for childcare workers in the nation’s capital, where a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,000, is… $26,900.

In a new report published Wednesday, a group of economists argued the market alone can’t fix this problem. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in the District, say daycare should become a national priority, a human right on par with public education, because it contributes to academic achievement gaps, among other unequal outcomes later in children's lives.

In order to make high-quality child care — with well-trained staff and a cognitively enriching environment — available to all in the current system, many children would have to be crammed into the best day care centers and safety would have to be severely compromised, said co-author Josh Bivens, EPI’s research and policy director.“The easiest way,” he said, “would be to shove 70 kids in one class.”

Rather than encourage this dystopia, he said, America should invest more resources into building a national childcare system, one that rewards quality.

The staggering cost of day care when you make only the minimum wage

The report focuses on the potential benefits: Since much of our brains form in the first three years of life, toddlers who receive stable, loving care in an unstressful environment tend to perform better in school, neuroscientists have found. (Britain now offers free parenting classes inspired by this notion.)

The EPI authors recommend, among other updates, expanding public funding for home visits by nurses to help expectant parents make healthy choices during pregnancy and adding subsidies for those who can’t afford high quality care.

They also campaign for the public provision of early childhood education that focuses on cognitive development, so kids with different family incomes, can enter school at more equal levels of preparedness.

They don't detail a funding mechanism — more research and analysis is required, Bivens said. Launching the new child-care infrastructure, he estimates, would cost roughly $90 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP. To break it down: The annual ballpark cost of high quality pre-Kindergarten is $40 billion, and a voucher system for younger kids would require another $40 billion. A nurse visiting program, he said, would cost close to $10 billion.

“In the long run, it’s probably self-financing,” Bivens said. “The kids who grow up 10 to 20 years from now would be more likely to earn higher wages and avoid contact with the criminal justice system.”

Add that, he said, to the increased labor force participation of parents.

The idea of universal daycare — or any form of government-provided child care — is, of course, controversial.

Consider a 2015 study of Quebec's universal childcare program. In 1997, the Canadian province started offering full-time kindergarten to all 5 year olds and supplied $5-per-day daycare for all 4 year olds. The $5-per-day program was extended to 3 year olds in 1998, 2 year olds in 1999 and all younger children in 2000.

The outcome was disappointing, to put it lightly.

Though more parents got to work, middle class kids who'd gone through the province's programs exhibited worse health outcomes and got into trouble more often than those who didn't, the research found. They also showed a "sharp and contemporaneous increase in criminal behavior" as they grew older. 

Co-author Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist (who was one of the chief architects of the Affordable Care Act), said no one knows exactly what went wrong. "The harm may have been it was such a big expansion, it did not have qualified providers," he said.

High quality programs aimed at low-income preschoolers, however, have produced much happier outcomes: Kids who participated scored better on tests until at least eighth grade. (No positive effect, however, emerged in higher-income children's test scores.)

So, Gruber said, lawmakers working to remedy America's daycare woes should pour resources into the poorest communities, where kids who qualify for state vouchers are often stuck on waiting lists.

Regardless of income, there's a significant demand for affordable childcare in the U.S.

About 8.2 million kids spend some part of their week in the care of somebody besides their parent. The people who care for them tend to make less money than janitors, for example. In 2014, the median hourly wage of child care workers was $10.31. Only a high school degree or an equivalent-earned online is necessary for the role.

The low pay, economists worry, drives away highly skilled workers. A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development labeled the majority of America’s daycare programs  “fair” or “poor.” Just 10 percent, they found, offered high-quality care.

[The surprising number of parents scaling back at work to care for kids]

Over the last three decades, meanwhile, weekly out-of-pocket spending on childcare for families with a working mom has almost doubled, according to the Census Bureau. The average annual cost of daycare now exceeds the price of in-state college tuition in 31 states.