We ask the most of parents in a phase of life when they have the least. Our children, families and nation suffer the consequences. But it does not have to be this way. As Congress debates our 2018 federal budget, expanding investments in young children and their families should be a top priority.
Families with young children often need public investments the most. When children are younger, parents have a harder time pulling together private resources to finance both everyday expenses as well as long-term investments in their children.
Compared to parents of children under age three, parents whose youngest child is in high school have had more than a decade longer to save, earn 20-percent more per hour and work roughly 30-percent more hours. Parents of older kids are also more likely to have a high credit score.
Overall, families with younger children have less access to every kind of private income, past, present and future, as this White House Council of Economic Advisers brief describes.
Rather than compensate for this, public policy deepens the gap by investing the least in the youngest children. Public programs, such as Head Start and state pre-kindergartens, cover an average of only five hours per week from ages zero to four.
In contrast, public schools cover an average of over 30 hours a week of elementary school-aged children's time. Broadly, all public expenditures — including education, health and refundable tax credits — are 76-percent higher per teenager than per infant or toddler.
The gap between resources needed and resources available makes the first years of parenthood an economic and emotional struggle for many American families. We hear about the many crises affecting young children: child-care deserts, "suspensions" of preschoolers with special needs and affordable housing, to name a few.
At the root, all of these spring from the fact that we ask the most of families when they have the least. Talk to parents whose youngest child recently entered kindergarten. It can feel like the biggest pay raise of their lives.
Not investing enough in our nation’s youngest also has substantial long-term consequences. Strong evidence links better early childhood experiences to a diverse set of benefits, including improved educational attainment, improved health, decreased crime and increased earnings. In the long run, smart investments in young children will pay for themselves.
Policymakers on both sides of the aisle claim to care about this problem facing American families. But recent steps have been far too small and far too slow. The expanded Child Tax Credit maxes out $2,000 per child per year and only up to $1,400 for lower-income families.
This does not come close to covering a stay-at-home parent’s lost earnings or the average cost of child care, which is higher than the cost of in-state college tuition in most states. Recent action to prevent the collapse of the Children’s Health Insurance Program holds the line but does not advance us.
We are even moving backward in some respects. Take, for example, the federal Preschool Development Grant. This grant gives up to $250 million to state preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, a lifeline for many families who struggle to afford care.
But with the 2018 budget stalled, state programs that served an estimated 170,000 children last year are still waiting on federal funds. And the families that rely on this program are waiting as Congress works through its budget standoff.
Overall, despite the expansion of early-education programs in a number of states, preschool funding is below 2004 levels. Similarly, funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which serves at-risk pregnant women and parents of young children, expired last year and has yet to be renewed.
The House GOP Better Way plan proposes cutting funding for nutrition assistance for young children, which helps close the gap between resources and needs during a critical period of child development and generates long-run benefits for our children and communities.
Going forward, we have work to do to find common ground. Do we want to invest by publicly providing early care and education, subsidizing private care or other services or simply giving families extra income with the freedom to spend it as they judge best?
How narrowly or universally do we want to target public investments and over what age range? How will quality be assured?
We have many possible paths forward. Congress could expand the Preschool Development Grants, which currently only provides federal matching for state funding in less than one-third of states. Another approach is to help finance care for all low-income children under age five.
The Child Care and Development Fund, a state-federal partnership that funds child-care vouchers for low-income working parents, is currently so underfunded that it can serve less than one-quarter of eligible children. Or, Congress could increase support for parents of young children.
The president’s budget proposal last year included roughly $25 billion to create six weeks of paid leave for all new parents, a call he renewed in the State of the Union address last month.
The 2018 budget is an opportunity for additional federal investment in our families and our future. Asking the most of parents when they have the least makes no sense. The debate over whether to invest more in families with young children should be over. We now need to debate how.
Neha Dalal works in education policy and advocacy and holds a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard University.
Aaron Sojourner is a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Both formerly served at the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Obama and Trump.