Washington, D.C.’s Universal Preschool Leads to Parental Employment Gains

universal preschool

From the Washington Post:

“Yolanda Corbett knows she would have to remain at home with her youngest child if he was not enrolled in preschool. She would lose her job as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit and would have to scramble in the evenings to find friends and relatives to watch her three children while she worked a night shift in retail. Full-priced day care, which can cost thousands of dollars a month, is not an option.

“But the District’s public preschool program has enabled Corbett and thousands of other mothers with young children to enter the workforce, according to a study showing the nearly decade-old universal preschool initiative has benefited more than just the city’s youngest residents. A decade ago, Corbett remained at home with her oldest son during his toddler years. She knows the loss of income and structure for a child can be devastating.”

A Look at Universal Preschool

This study, “The Effects of Universal Preschool in Washington, D.C.” by the Center for American Progress, explains the extent to which “parents—specifically mothers—have returned to or entered the workforce in significant numbers since the city expanded to universal preschool.” In 2009, Washington, D.C. began a program of two-year, publicly-funded, universal preschool, which today enrolls 90 percent of the District’s four-year-olds and 70 percent of its three-year-olds. Not only has this program provided a strong educational foundation for the District’s children, but it has enabled their parents to enter or re-enter the workforce two years earlier than they would have.

The study key findings include:

  • In the years since Washington, D.C., began offering two years of universal preschool, the city’s maternal labor force participation rate has increased by about 12 percentage points [from 65 percent to 76.4 percent], with 10 percentage points attributable to preschool expansion.
  • District of Columbia mothers with young children now participate in the labor force at about the same rate as District of Columbia mothers whose children are in elementary school.
  • Maternal labor force participation increased among both low-income and high-income families [while remaining unchanged for middle-income families].
  • Women with young children also saw large increases in employment, with boosts to full-time work for married women and part-time work for unmarried women.

The program also seems to have impacted the demographic makeup of Washington, D.C.’s population. According to the Post, “Since the District started offering tuition-free preschool, the city has experienced an influx of white and affluent families,” and the report recognizes that a benefit in that is not available in neighboring, higher-income jurisdictions can lead to gentrification.

More curious, however, the program does not appear to have had an impact on the number of children living in poverty. While the rate of workforce participation “jumped 13.3 percent among unmarried women and 15.2 percent among women living in poverty,” the percentage of the District’s children living in poverty—26 percent—remained unchanged between 2007 and 2018. As an explanation for this apparent result, Rasheed Malik, the study’s author, stated “We are seeing that choices have opened, the opportunities have opened up, but it may not always turn into consistent or well-paying employment. … [The parents are] feeling that they can work.”

Based on these findings, a nationally-scaled, two-year preschool program would raise workforce participation across the country, boost young families’ incomes, and potentially be reflected in higher national GDP numbers. “When policy supports the employment choices of parents with young children, the benefits almost always outweigh the costs in the form of higher earnings, a larger tax base, and better long-term outcomes for children,” the report states. CAP concludes

For these reasons, among others, the United States should consider universal preschool and expanded child care assistance as part of a broad economic growth agenda. Providing full-day, year-round child care for working parents will benefit millions of families, increase the lifetime earnings and savings of women, and bring women’s labor force participation rates into line with women’s rates in other advanced economies.

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