Politics & Policy

It Takes a Parent, Not a Policy

(Andreykuzmin/Dreamstime)
Spending billions more on daycare subsidies won’t yield better kids.

This past weekend, Hillary Clinton underlined her commitment to dramatically expanding federal funding for child care, ostensibly under the banner of helping “make sure kids get the best possible start in life.” After chiding Republican politicians for their heartless indifference to children, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman praised Clinton’s move in a column titled “It Takes a Policy,” arguing that her ambitious child-care policy would “make a huge difference to [young children’s] lives.”

There are only two problems with the progressive policy push for a big expansion in public funding for child care:

1) The science doesn’t support Clinton’s call for more daycare if the primary goal is to get kids off to a “healthy start,” one of Clinton’s avowed rationales for making this move.

2) Most parents would prefer to have one parent at home.

First, let’s look at the science.

What’s amazing about the child-care debate is how little attention the “party of science” pays to the complex and contested science surrounding child care and maternal work. As Jenet Erickson recently noted in Family Studies, when young children, especially infants, spend lots of time in child care, it poses behavioral and social risks, even when they are being cared for in high-quality centers. She pointed out that an exhaustive NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)-funded study of child care around the United States found that children age four and under who spent more than 30 hours a week in non-maternal child care were about nine times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems (e.g. aggression, defiance, argumentativeness) at age four, according to caregiver reports, as children who spent less than 10 hours a week in non-maternal care as an infant (see figure below). They were also more likely to have problems such as drug use or stealing as adolescents. As Columbia University political scientist Jane Waldfogel, the author of What Children Need, noted, “children do tend to do worse if their mothers work full-time in the first year of life. Negative effects are found on health, cognitive development, and externalizing behavior problems.”

Of course, the story about child care and maternal work is not all bad. It’s true that high-quality child care seems to register benefits on cognitive outcomes for some children, as this same NICHD-funded study found. What’s more, the extra income that a working mother can bring into the home can neutralize some of the negative effects of non-maternal care in a child’s first year. Waldfogel also notes, regarding maternal work, that “part-time work in the first year, or work in the second and third years, does not have the same effects” on children. Overall, then, the effects of child care for average American children seem mixed.

Child care may be better for some kids and worse for others, a possibility often ignored in public debates about the subject, and in Clinton’s push for more public spending on child care.

Furthermore, child care seems to be most beneficial for children from low-income, disadvantaged homes. These kids often benefit from the more structured and stimulating environments found in formal child care versus their homes. By contrast, children from middle- and upper-income homes headed by two parents were more likely to be harmed by spending extensive time in non-maternal care as infants. A Columbia University study, for instance, found that children’s cognitive outcomes were worse when “mothers were working 30 hours or more per week and with effects more pronounced for certain subgroups (i.e., children whose mothers were not sensitive, boys, and children with married parents).” Child care, then, may be better for some kids and worse for others, a possibility often ignored in public debates about the subject, and in Clinton’s push for more public spending on child care.

Finally, new research by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber (and colleagues) indicates that one big experiment in expanding child care at the societal level — Quebec’s introduction of universal child care — did not turn out well. Their study found that “cohorts with increased child care access subsequently had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life,” with “impacts on criminal activity . . . concentrated in boys.” In contending that Clinton’s policy agenda on this front will “make a huge difference to [children’s] lives,” Krugman seems to do nothing but betray his ignorance or indifference to the state of the science on child care.

Second, let’s look at public sentiment.

Most Americans, and most American parents, do not seem to think that a dramatic expansion in publicly funded child care is the best option for today’s children and families. Most Americans, and most parents, would prefer to have a parent at home. A recent Pew survey found that 60 percent of Americans thought “children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family,” a view that was also shared by a majority of mothers (56 percent) and fathers (69 percent) with children at home.

Indeed, as I noted in the Wall Street Journal, a substantial minority of Americans make considerable financial sacrifices to realize this goal:

Today about one-quarter of married families have a parent at home, more than one-third of married families with young children have a parent at home, and an even larger share of married families will have a parent step out of the workforce for several months to care for the children.

The social science and public sentiment around parenting and child care suggest that the best way to address children’s and families’ needs is not to dedicate billions more dollars to a policy of expanding paid child care that benefits only some families and puts more young children in care outside of their homes. Rather, we should seek a group of family policies — such as an expanded child tax credit (a favorite of the Right) and the introduction of paid parental leave (a favorite of the Left) — that seek to treat all parents fairly, whatever their choices about work and family, and give parents the option of spending more time with their infants. As Hillary Clinton herself wrote in It Takes a Village (1996), “we must respect the choices that each woman makes for herself and her family.” Indeed, if we sought public policies that gave parents more choices about how to best combine work and family, it looks like many American families would choose options that give Mom (and, increasingly, Dad) more time with baby, not less.

— W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

W. Bradford Wilcox — W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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