Access to affordable, high quality early care and education (ECE) for children under school age is essential for allowing parents to be productive members of the workforce and for putting young children, especially those from families facing economic or other challenges, on a trajectory for success. Therefore, providing universal ECE is an important progressive policy priority.
For 65% of children under age six, all parents are working. The lack of affordable ECE means that some parents can’t afford to work, reducing the labor force participation of parents – a loss to our economy. In addition, reduced productivity due to employees’ inadequate or undependable ECE costs businesses billions of dollars a year because of absenteeism and other impacts on parents’ ability to work productively.
Low-income families spend, on average, over 17% of their incomes for ECE. The federal government’s benchmark for affordability is that ECE should cost no more than 7% of income. With two or more children, ECE often costs more than a parent can earn. Therefore, it can make economic sense for a parent to drop out of the workforce and care for the children.
Because providers of ECE must make their services affordable for parents, in many cases they cannot afford to provide high quality services. In particular, they cannot afford to pay ECE teachers enough to consistently attract and retain top notch staff. ECE teachers are paid much less than what they would make in other positions, for example as a public school teacher. Despite the push to have ECE teachers have a Bachelor’s degree, as public-school teachers do, their pay is about half that of public school teachers.
ECE teachers make less than $24,000 on average; pay so low that roughly half of them require public assistance, such as Food Stamps, to make ends meet. Therefore, turnover is high – which does not provide the stability of consistent relationships that children need or the quality of services that an experienced, stable workforce can deliver.
Investments in young children and their families can produce a high return on investment (ROI) – up to $17 for every dollar spent – according to numerous studies. High quality ECE for children, coupled with support for low-income parents, reduces the need for special education and grade retention in schools, reduces high school dropout rates and involvement with the criminal justice system, and increases children’s educational attainment and their future earnings. More recent studies have identified long-term improvements in health and mental health, as well as benefits for the next generation of children. These more recently identified outcomes have not yet been factored into the ROI calculations; they will undoubtedly increase the ROI for investments in young children and their families, probably substantially above the 17 to 1 return calculated by the Perry Preschool Study.
Current federal ECE programs serve only a fraction of eligible children because funding is limited. Head Start serves fewer than 50% of eligible 3 and 4 year olds (i.e., those in families below the poverty line, which is only $21,000 for a family of three that not infrequently consists of a single parent with two young children). Early Head Start, for families with a child from birth to three, serves fewer than 10% of those eligible. Finally, the Child Care and Development Fund, which subsidizes ECE for all other families, serves only about 16% of the eligible families (1 in 6).
Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren has made a detailed policy proposal for universally accessible ECE. Her Universal Child Care and Early Learning plan would:
- Provide universal access to locally run ECE in centers, homes, or other settings so every family can choose the ECE it would prefer and every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.
- Ensure affordability by providing ECE free to families below twice the poverty line (about $51,500 for a family of 4) and on a sliding fee basis to other families so no family pays more than 7% of its income for ECE.
- Guarantee high quality services, including comprehensive support for children’s growth and development, such as health, dental, and other services to ensure a safe, nurturing early childhood experience.
- Compensate ECE teachers at the same level as public school teachers and provide them with professional development opportunities, which will improve quality and reduce turnover.
An independent economic analysis estimates that such a program of universal, affordable, high quality ECE would cost about $70 billion per year. Senator Warren proposes paying for this with a wealth tax that would generate $275 billion per year. (See my previous post for more details and options on how to pay for progressive policies like this one.)
Universal, affordable ECE would increase labor force participation and productivity, thereby stimulating economic growth and increasing tax revenue. Therefore, universal ECE would, at least in part, pay for itself in the short-term, and over the long-term the return on investment due to improved outcomes for the children would more than pay for this investment in our young children and their families.