Politics & Policy

The Folly of Universal Child Care

(Robert Kneschke|Dreamstime)

It helped get progressive stalwart Bill de Blasio elected mayor of New York, and it resurfaces again and again in speeches by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but the Left’s dream of publicly funded child care is suddenly getting pushback from an unlikely source: Jonathan Gruber, the liberal economist who helped design Obamacare.  

In a newly released study, Gruber examined the universal child-care program run by the Canadian province of Quebec. In 1997, Quebec began phasing in subsidized child-care, regardless of family income, for kids four-and-under. At the time of the program’s inception, it cost parents $5 a day per child. By 2014, that number had risen to $7.30, but the subsidy still generally covers around 80 percent of the cost of child care. Other Canadian provinces subsidize a much smaller share of child-care costs and thus, have far fewer children enrolled in day-care programs. Since the universal program was Quebec specific, Gruber’s team compared the outcomes of children in Quebec to other Canadian children not exposed to the universal-childcare program.

It turns out that exposure to childcare in Quebec negatively impacts children in both the short and long terms. Compared with their peers in other provinces, young Québécois children had higher rates of anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. As teenagers, these children committed more crimes and were generally less satisfied with their lives. The program had no long-term positive effect on children’s standardized test scores or cognitive abilities, and may even have had a negative effect.  

Why is this program failing children in Quebec so miserably? Nobody knows for sure. There is no evidence that the program was underfunded or understaffed, and its negative effects persisted even after new regulations designed to improve the quality of care and increase wages. So it seems unlikely that substandard services are the culprit.

#share#It’s possible that center-based care has an inherently negative impact on children. Most of the care provided by Quebec’s program occurred in regulated day-care centers. The number of such centers rose from 78,864 in 1997 to 245,107 in 2012, an increase far greater than that seen in other Canadian provinces. Accordingly, children in other provinces had far less exposure to center-based care.

The figure below shows that between the mid-1990s and 2008, the percent of Québécois children being cared for by their parents decreased by 30 percent, while center-based care increased by 60 percent:

It’s not surprising that Quebec’s program negatively impacts some children. It is unique because it is available to all families, whereas most comparable programs target at-risk or low-income children. Studies of U.S. child-care and preschool programs have produced mixed conclusions about their collective impact on children. At-risk kids typically benefit from such programs, but outcomes for others enrolled alongside them have been neutral and even negative.

Clinton frames universal childcare as both an economic and womens’ rights issue. In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait perfectly summarized the importance of the issue to the Clinton campaign:

In addition to its emerging status as party doctrine, early-childhood education solves several of Hillary Clinton’s messaging problems at once. Affordable child care as a social issue appeals to the working poor all the way through to the upper-middle class. It lends policy heft to her status as potentially the first female president in American history. And it would undergird a forward-looking economic program, simultaneously attacking the problem of stagnant opportunity for working parents and their children.

The challenges of working parents, and especially of working mothers, are real, and they must be addressed. It is true that Gruber’s study found a significant increase in female work-force participation in Quebec. But at what cost? It’s reasonable to think that any negatives from non-parental child care would be negated by increased economic opportunity, but the data doesn’t support that hypothesis. An ideal child-care policy would improve opportunities and outcomes for mothers, fathers, and children. Exactly how such a policy would look is unclear, but the sweeping, universal child-care program that liberals are calling for is not it.

— Callie Gable is a senior at Duke University studying public policy, history, and journalism.

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