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Inequality, Failure, and the Case for Spending $100 Billion on Childhood Education

Our country lags pitifully far behind when it comes to public childcare programs. Time to change that.

The United States has fallen so far behind other countries in spending on early-childhood education and care, we’re barely in the race. So confirms a new Washington Post article that draws heavily from the new book “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality” and details all the ways our country has failed to make any traction in the childcare sector — a how those of lesser means pay the price.

While near-universal pre-school attendance is now common in many developed nations, the U.S., once a global leader in education, lags pitifully far behind. And while our country currently spends $30 billion a year in government money on early-childhood education and care, the authors of “Cradle to Kindergarten,” argue for raising that amount to $100 billion. That number, an amount that would be about 0.6 percent of GDP, would put us on par with what many other developed nations spend. It’s not a revolutionary request; in fact, similar increases have been proposed many times before. But the need for an increase is only growing, and it may have sufficient bipartisan support.

Childcare and preschool in the U.S. are prohibitively expensive for many middle-class and most disadvantaged families. Yet the U.S. only averages $1,350 a year in both federal and state dollars per child in pre-kindergarten education. This paltry amount of support results in just 55 percent of three- and four-year-olds getting enrolled in pre-school. In France, that number is 100 percent. The U.S. also lags behind Israel, Germany, the U.K., South Korea, Japan, and more in this area.

childcare worker helping children

Increasing government spending on early-childhood education and care by more than three times what it is now, from $30 to $100 billion, isn’t just a competitive measure to catch up with these other developed nations. The authors of “Cradle to Kindergarten” argue that this additional spending would not only allow the U.S. to make preschool available for every child starting at age three but also establish a paid parental leave program.

Continuing to not do so has broad consequences. Developmentally, attending preschool has long-lasting benefits on academic performance, career development, and health outcomes. According to “Cradle to Kindergarten,” children who aren’t enrolled in pre-school often start kindergarten a year behind in their math and verbal skills. Not only do the children never catch up in early education, but they’re more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs later in life, as well. But the consequences aren’t just limited to children and also extend to parents. According to a survey published by the advocacy group Small Business Majority, 36 percent of small business owners say a lack of access to child care was a major barrier to starting a business. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the number of stay-at-home mothers has increased over the past 15 years, likely due to prohibitive childcare costs.

Addressing this issue seems to be gaining more bipartisan support. President Trump’s budget proposal sought funds for the creation of a program to grant mothers and fathers six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. The initiative would be America’s first ever paid parental leave program. And on the campaign trail, Trump talked of expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which would make it more affordable for families to put their kids in preschool and childcare programs. While Trump isn’t exactly the most dependable on his word, the growing bipartisanship is perhaps indicative of swelling support for increasing the government’s investment in early-childhood education and care. And the support is needed now more than ever.