Could universal childcare work in the US?

By Annamarie Houlis

In 1970, about half of all American mothers stayed home to care for their children, but that family model has fallen from 46 percent then to about a quarter in 2015. That means that by 2016, nearly 2 million parents with kids ages 5 and younger had to quit their jobs, turn down jobs or change their work schedules significantly because of childcare conflicts — and, of course, women have been hit the hardest. Since the 1980s, childcare costs have climbed 70 percent, and the population of working mothers in the labor force has declined 13 percent.

While the cost of childcare is dependent upon where families live, their children’s ages and how many hours a week their child or children spend in day care, the average cost of day care in the United States is $11,666 per year (or $972 a month) according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Prices range from $3,582 to $18,773 a year (or $300 to $1,564 monthly), which means that regardless of how inexpensive a day care center feels comparatively, it still costs a pretty penny. In fact, annuals costs can outpace what families typically spend on food, and in many states, even housing and college tuition.

“In Massachusetts, for example, where child care costs are some of the highest in the country, a parent with an infant spends an average of $20,125 each year on day care; freshman-year tuition at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, runs only $14,596,” writes New Republic contributor Bryce Covert in his piece, “A New Deal for Day Care.” “The expense doesn’t necessarily result in good care: Fewer than 10 percent of day care centers, according to a 2006 survey, have well-trained and well-educated providers, who read books aloud to children, respond to them, ask questions, and encourage their development.”

Sure there are options like turning to family or friends, joining babysitting cooperatives, hiring college students for less money, forming babysitting exchanges with other parents, looking to nonprofit centers and more, but Covert recommends that America consider a childcare program for everyone, regardless of income.

Nearly 8 million families pay these hefty prices for nannies, day care centers or some sort of childcare alternative, according to census data. And though that’s a high number, many parents can’t afford it or don’t even have access to it because they live in “childcare deserts,” where day care centers don’t exist or there are more than three times as many kids as available spots in them.

“The extent of the economic damage has forced politicians from both parties to alter their views of child care,” Covert writes. “Within the last five years, some Republicans, who have typically hewed to traditional ideas about families and households, have adopted more modern ideas about how to help parents find care for their children… There is a growing willingness to address the problem, though, which leaves Democrats with an opening to put forward something better. But in September, when the party unveiled the child care plank of its ‘Better Deal’ agenda, it consisted of a punishing maze of technical details.”

Lawmakers could instead create a system that’d make high-quality childcare available to and affordable for all American families for the entire working day, Covert suggests, admitting that it sounds fanciful.

Other countries already do so. He refers to France, where parents can send their babies to both publicly and privately run nurseries, called crèches, when their children turn 3 months old, according to Expatica. The centers, which are open most of the workday and require at least half of their providers to have degrees in early education, charge based on parental income. Then, once children turn 3, they’re guaranteed a spot in the country’s universal preschool program until they turn 6 — and more than 95 percent of kids are enrolled. To pull this off, France spent about €27 billion (about $33 billion USD) in 2013 — about 1.3 percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, the United States spends less on childcare and early childhood education than all other developed countries except Turkey, Latvia and Croatia, Covert explains.

But it wasn’t always this way, and the country doesn’t need to necessarily mirror France. In fact, an American model already exists, Covert says. As women went to work in factories during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt built a nationwide network of public childcare centers in every state but New Mexico. The centers were open 12 hours a day year-round for about $10 a day in today’s dollars, regardless of income. And for each additional $100 a state spent on centers, children who were enrolled later saw a 1.8 percentage point increase in earnings and a 0.7 percent increase in their employment rate. Alas, President Truman closed them when the war ended despite the wealth of research that suggested it was working and the positive feedback from mothers who were able to work longer hours and earn more money.

“There are many proposals for how to provide that care, but a universal program would be the most effective and durable,” Covert recommends. “A targeted, technocratic program, of the sort proposed in the Better Deal, is in danger of falling prey to stereotypes about failed Big Government — digging up documents to prove that you’re eligible, going to appointments to argue you should stay enrolled, repeating the whole process annually or even monthly. Such bureaucracy discourages people from signing up in the first place and breeds resentment from those just above the cutoff. A childcare program for everyone isn’t just a smart investment in parents, children and our economy; it’s the smartest way to deliver it.”

Originally published on Fairygodboss.

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