Subsidized day care and universal pre-K are goals that sound so wholesome only a ghoul could oppose them. Especially in an era when Democrats and Republicans have achieved consensus that money grows on trees, who could possibly object to spending a few hundred billion or so, as Biden has proposed with his American Families Plan, to ensure that kids get the best start in life?
My hand is up. Here is a partial list of reasons:
1. It’s not what parents prefer.
Numerous surveys have shown that most parents prefer arrangements other than commercial, center-based care for their young children. An American Compass survey showed that among poor, working-class and middle-class parents, the most common preference was for one parent to work and the other to care for children under 5. Only among upper-class families did the largest percentage choose to have both parents working.
And center-based care is not what Americans are doing. Data from Child Trends shows that only about 11% of American infants and toddlers were in center-based day care, with most parents opting for a parent at home (38%), a home-based day care provided by a family member, friend or neighbor (30%), or some combination (21%).
2. Subsidizing day care may paradoxically increase its price.
The two areas of the economy in which inflation has far outpaced the norm over the past 20 years are the very realms in which government has intervened to make things “affordable.” So while prices for toys, automobiles, cellphone service and clothing have not risen as fast as the consumer price index, health care, college tuition and college textbooks have increased at twice the rate of inflation.
3. The promised benefits are illusory.
Though President Joe Biden suggested that 3- and 4-year-olds who attend pre-K “are far more likely to graduate from high school and continue their education,” the evidence doesn’t support that. Children who attend Head Start are no better off academically than children who don’t. One gold-standard study compared disadvantaged children randomly assigned to pre-K in Tennessee. At first, the pre-K kids seemed to score better. But by the third grade, the non-preschool cohort had moved ahead and stayed ahead.
“We haven’t found any sustained effects, either in social and emotional development or achievement,” Vanderbilt University professor Dale Farrar, one of the study’s authors, told FiveThirtyEight.
Day care, too, is a mixed bag. Some famous programs like the Perry Preschool were well funded and high-quality. Most are neither. Many surveys tout the social skills that children acquire in day care, such as a French study cited by USA Today under the headline, “Daycare kids are better behaved than those who stay at home.” But the study actually compared children in one high-quality day care center with those in “informal childcare.” It’s not clear whether the control group was parental care or some other form.
Anyway, this topic is a hot button in the mommy wars, with outlets like Working Mother magazine and the Center for American Progress lauding the benefits of day care while conservatives note the pitfalls. A 2010 federal study that followed children for decades, the Early Child Care Research Network, found children who spent long hours in day care to be more impulsive and risk-taking as teenagers. The most compelling evidence for caution comes from Quebec, which instituted a universal day care program in 1997. The results were worrying. When those toddlers became teenagers, they were less healthy, less happy and, most strikingly, more likely to have criminal records than teenagers from other provinces.
4. It’s not clear what the motive is.
Is this about what’s best for kids or the workforce? Democrats lean toward getting moms into the office as a top priority, which reflects their college-educated, work-as-self-expression bias. In 2017, introducing a similar day care/pre-K package, Nancy Pelosi explained, “We see this as children learning, parents earning.” When Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council, spoke to columnists about the American Families Plan, she said, “We want parents to be in the work force.”
But parents don’t necessarily have the same preferences. A 2019 Pew survey found that 76% of adults believed that full-time work is ideal for fathers but only 33% thought that about mothers. Among full-time working mothers, only 45% think this is ideal. Forty-one percent said part-time work was best, and 11% favored no work at all for women with young children.
5. There is a better way to help families.
Give the money to the parents. The child tax credit that Biden has already signed is a great start. Direct payments to parents would be a far better way to support families. With the extra cash, parents can choose whether to have one parent stay at home when the kids are 5 and under (even if there is only one parent), or to use the funds to pay for child care. It gives the decision to the parents, who know best what suits their circumstances. And by giving the purchasing power to parents, it will encourage competition among providers. Also, it turns out that putting money directly in parents’ pockets does more to improve children’s school readiness than pre-K programs.
The Biden administration wants to help, which is great. They propose to do so without considering the massive evidence that such programs are neither effective nor desired by parents.
Just give moms and dads the money.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.
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