A new study led by an American Nobel Laureate in economics shows that access to free early child care leads to better outcomes for disadvantaged mothers and their children, even up to age 35. The research shows that gratis day care not only increases a mother’s salary, but the benefits to her children lead to a tangible monetary return on public investment in early child care programs.
The study, spearheaded by University of Chicago economic professor James J. Heckman, examined longitudinal data from two groups of mostly disadvantaged mothers and their children in North Carolina. The experimental group had been enrolled in one of two progressive early child care programs started by the state in the mid-1970s offering free full-day care. The control group either cared for children in-home or sent kids to lower quality programs. Economic and social outcomes data for both groups of children and their mothers was collected from birth to 35-years-old.
The independently published study titled The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program found substantial benefits to both health and income for both mother and child in the free child care group. For mothers, researchers found an income benefit, likely due to more time for education and job experience, that lasted a full 21 years. For children, data showed that those who received the free high-quality health care saw less incarceration, more education, and higher incomes, along with reduced adverse health conditions including high blood pressure. Based on these outcomes the researchers concluded that the public could see a return of over $7 for every dollar spent on high-quality, free early child care programs.
The study adds to Heckman’s growing body of evidence that socially progressive policies for the disadvantaged have huge benefits for marginalized communities and society in general. This includes work showing economic progress for minorities connected to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and research showing potentially huge benefits to people who earn their GED.
More than that, the study adds to growing evidence that access to early child care in America remains an ugly problem. A recent report in association with Care.com showed that not only are families spending roughly $10,000 a year on child care, but breakdowns in that care cost the U.S. $14 million in lost work productivity and absenteeism.
Policy fixes continue to be proposed by organizations and individual activists. The nonprofit Make It Work, suggests a combination of subsidies, price caps and wage increases for child care workers. Ivanka Trump is also pushing a proposal based on tax credits. But most plans fall short of building a program that offers families free high-quality child care, such as that seen in countries like Sweden.
Until a reasonable solution is found, families will continue to feel the child care burden. And sadly that burden will be felt most sharply by the most disadvantaged, leading to increased cost to society and vast communities of people with untapped potential.