Combining quality child care with preschool promotes social mobility across generations
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President Trump campaigned on a plan for making child care more affordable for American families. He also promised to make quality, early childhood education part of his education agenda. The new administration and new Congress would be well-advised to combine the two efforts into one comprehensive package to reduce inequality and promote social mobility across generations. The solution is child care subsidies to incentivize quality early childhood education from birth to age three — combined with greater access to quality preschool at age four.

During the course of the recently concluded presidential election, both party's candidates recognized the immense and growing pressure of high child care costs for working families. The Trump administration in partnership with Congress should take steps to make child care more affordable for low- and middle-income parents.

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Greater access to child care frees parents — primarily single mothers — to work and attend school. The ability to work equips parents and families with valuable job experience that will in turn strengthen their financial resources in order to open doors to social and economic opportunity. Work helps parents promote their dignity, self-esteem, and broader engagement in society.

 

However, all child care is not alike. Child care must be more than babysitting if we hope to promote social mobility across generations. In fact, research shows that low-quality child care harms children, especially young boys. On the other hand, high-quality, developmentally-oriented child care has proven benefits to the lives of disadvantaged children and their families.

These benefits include short and long term savings to taxpayers as well. The annual rate of return on quality child care for disadvantaged children is 13.7 percent per annum, which is delivered through better education, health, social and economic outcomes for children as well as the economic gains made by mothers who are freed to work and grow their careers.

Quality matters and high quality yields the biggest payoffs, especially when quality child care is linked with quality preschool. Unfortunately, many policymakers see child care and preschool as separate issues when they should be viewed as one, comprehensive, effective early childhood experience, especially for disadvantaged children and their mothers.

The push for high-quality universal pre-K for four-year-olds, now embraced by a growing number of political and thought leaders, is strangely isolated from the movement supporting child care for working mothers. Focusing solely on four-year-old children may make for good politics, but by itself it falls short. Good policy takes into account the science of early childhood brain development, the needs of working mothers with younger children, and provides disadvantaged infants and toddlers with the high-quality child care that has been proven to promote success in school and later on in life.

There is strong evidence that disadvantaged families receive the highest economic and social benefits of quality early child care. These families are precisely the group that would most benefit from subsidized child care. Affluent families often already have access to high-quality child care resources. With limited government budgets, it makes sense to provide quality early childhood development for those in need, which also gives taxpayers the greatest returns on their public investments. But despite all the evidence, policymakers are not yet hitting the mark.

More can be done. Here’s how: Make evidence-based policy that joins these two causes by providing both quality child care and preschool for disadvantaged children. Doing so will advance two generations of Americans. It advances social mobility for parents by promoting earnings, attachment to the workplace, educational attainment, and work experience. It promotes the social mobility of the next generation by allowing resources to be spent on child development and school readiness.

Providing very young children with early skills that last a lifetime lessens the need for costly special education, reduces crime, and leads to higher lifetime earnings and better lifetime health. Lowering costs, raising quality, and improving outcomes is just good public policy.

James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and an expert in the economics of human development. J.B. Pritzker is a businessman who is also a philanthropic leader in early childhood development. He is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Pritzker Group, a private investment firm and is a recognized entrepreneurial leader advocating a stronger national technology sector.


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