Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.
We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.
Back in May, I had the privilege to present the closing keynote address at the Child Care Services Association annual conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. One point that several attendees told me resonated was when I showed that you can make many different arguments for child care, although advocates tend to focus primarily on only a few. I thought it would be useful to briefly sketch out the many cases for child care, because it is important to tailor messaging to one’s audience. My experience in talking about child care around the country is that what makes someone’s ears perk up can vary quite a lot — and often differs from what is compelling to me.
As I said in Chapel Hill, this idea of a multi-pronged approach is certainly not new. Historian Lawrence Cremin has written of Horace Mann, often considered the ‘father’ of American public schools: “His message to the working classes was the promise that ‘education … is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.’ To men of property, he asserted that their security and prosperity depended upon having literate and law-abiding neighbors who were competent workers and who would, via the common school, learn of the sanctity of private property. To all, he proclaimed that Providence had decreed that education was the ‘absolute right of every human being that comes into the world.’”
So, what are the cases for robust, permanent public investments in child care? Here are 10, in no particular order*:
The Economic Case
This is perhaps the simplest case to make. Child care supports the ability of parents to work, and given that tens of millions of parents have young children (more if you include elementary schoolers in need of care), this is a massive economic driver. Businesses say so, economists say so, the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Federal Reserve says so. It’s not up for debate: the economy needs child care to function well.
The Labor Case
Child care is, in and of itself, an extremely large industry. Considering all types of care, there are more than two million child care providers in the United States. This means that by size, the sector rivals that of truckers. Given the miserly wages most providers get, stabilizing the sector and improving compensation would raise a huge number of individuals out of poverty and near-poverty and into the middle class, while also increasing the economic output of the industry itself through increased purchases of materials, expansion into new facilities, and so on.
The Gender Equity Case
Not only are 97% of the aforementioned two million providers women, child care burdens disproportionately fall on mothers. Millions of women either don’t take jobs, reduce their hours, or otherwise alter their care-work situation due to a lack of child care. For as much as there are important efforts underway to shift cultural norms and improve load-sharing among mothers and fathers (in heterosexual relationships), gender equity cannot be achieved without solving child care.
The Racial Equity Case
The child care workforce is not only almost all women, it is disproportionately women of color: starting to finally respect and honor that workforce with the compensation it deserves will narrow racial wealth gaps. Along the same lines, communities of color are disproportionately likely to have scarce child care options, and the options that they do have tend to be less-resourced and thus of lower quality.
The Child Development Case
This is the other case we (rightly) hear often: high-quality child care has beneficial effects on child development, and those effects are concentrated among children from lower-income families. Quality matters a ton, and a primary mediator of quality is resources — how good or poor is the facility, how attentive or stressed is the caregiver? Since two-thirds of families have all available parents in the workforce and millions of young children are in non-parental care every day, investments in child care have huge implications for child brain and body development.
The National Security Case
Talk to high-ranking military personnel, and they will tell you that there is a direct linkage between child care and troop readiness. Part of this involves making sure troops have child care for their families (one reason the U.S. military child care system is one of the better models we have, and unsurprisingly also draws down substantial public funding), and the other part is because of the child development effects which down the road lead to larger or smaller pools of eligible individuals.
The Anti-Poverty Case
In addition to holding back families from finding and maintaining gainful employment, child care costs often rival or exceed rents. Reducing or zeroing out child care costs is a massive boon for families working hard to achieve financial stability. (Indeed, the strong anti-poverty nature of child care funding was one driving force behind organizers of Multnomah County, Oregon’s recent universal pre-K measures)
The Democracy Case
By reducing poverty and increasing family economic security, child care enables a broader swath of parents to fully engage in the democratic process (unsurprisingly, those on low-incomes and with insecure jobs vote far less frequently than those at the upper income levels). In addition, child care cultivates the building blocks of socioemotional development and civic behavior, foundations which come into play later in life as children gain more agency to participate fully in society.
The Family Flourishing Case
Merely making rent at the end of the month should not be our goal for society. We want parents to have ample time to spend with their children when not exhausted or stressed, in order to make memories, live a good life and share their values with the next generation. Affordable, quality child care supports these goals by reducing scarcity and ensuring parents can trust their children are well taken care of while they work.
The Self-Determination Case
I think this may be the most powerful case we don’t make often enough. Your decision about how many children to have, and when to have them, should not be determined by the availability and affordability of child care — yet for too many families, it is. Your ability to work hard and provide for your family should not be hampered by the lack of affordable child care — yet for too many parents, it is. Child care is tied up in freedom, and it is a prerequisite for most parents to meet their aspirations.
By wielding these different cases for different audiences, we can continue to build broad support for child care, knowing that every angle leads to the same conclusion: investing in child care is good for American families, good for American kids and good for America.
*I will note that many of these cases also apply to providing material support for stay-at-home parents.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.