When the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project reported earlier this year that women in the workforce have made the greatest contribution to the U.S. economy’s post-pandemic recovery, women all over the country probably didn’t even lift an eyebrow. Women whose youngest children are under 5 led the pack, the report found, with an all-time high of 70 percent participating in the workforce. When the report went on to state that “precious little of this change is likely the consequence of a supportive policy context,” heads all over the country nodded. Precious little is right.
A notable exception comes from New York City, where a supportive policy context has made a notable difference in mothers’ ability to participate in the labor force—and findings from the latest Early Childhood Poverty Tracker document that reality.
In 2017, New York City introduced its free 3-K for All program to a few districts, prioritizing districts with the highest need for pre-kindergarten. The city gradually unrolled the full-time 3-K program to other districts until it was available to all by 2021. Although it wasn’t part of the program’s design, the rollout created an excellent opportunity to measure the difference this policy move made for mothers’ workforce participation.
The Poverty Tracker, launched in 2012 as a collaboration between the Robin Hood foundation and Columbia University, provides a dynamic snapshot of poverty in New York City. Building off that work, the Early Childhood Poverty Tracker (ECPT) launched in 2017 to study 1,500 families with children from birth to 3, using repeated surveys to look at the challenges and resources for these same families during their children’s critical early years.
“New York is a laboratory of policy change, whether it’s paid sick leave, paid family leave, universal pre-K or universal 3-K,” says Dr. Jane Waldfogel, co-director of Columbia University’s Population Research Center and a co-author of the latest Poverty Tracker report on the city’s 3-K for All program. “Because we’re following the same families over time and our sample is representative of the population of New York City, it’s ideally suited for measuring the impact of policies as they roll out. In the Early Childhood Poverty Tracker, we had a sample of families with young children as universal pre-K and then 3-K were rolling out.”
Eunho Cha, a Columbia School of Social Work doctoral student working with the Robin Hood/Columbia team on the ECPT, wondered aloud if the 3-K program would have an impact on mothers’ labor force participation. That question and subsequent analysis grew into the recently released September 2023 report, “Spotlight on 3-K for All: New York City’s 3-K for All Supports Mothers’ Labor Force Participation.”
Among the report’s key findings:
Once children became age-eligible for the program, mothers living in districts with higher 3-K availability were more likely to be in the workforce than those who lived in districts with lower availability.
Mothers with greater 3-K availability had higher rates of full-time employment.
Even after the 3-K years, mothers who had more access to 3-K continued with higher rates of labor force participation and full-time employment.
The report used information from 12 ECPT surveys collected between late 2017 and early 2021, focusing on 438 families whose focal child was age-eligible for 3-K in the 2019–2020 academic year. Of these families, 43 percent lived in one of the 12 school districts where 3-K was rolled out and 57 percent lived in districts where it was not yet available.
The surveys looked at mothers’ labor force participation—whether they were working full time, part time, freelance or self-employed, or looking for work—and tracked mothers who were earning income from their employment. One measure included only mothers who were working full time, an indicator of stable employment that was of particular interest because it is often associated with higher wages and benefits.
When children in the 3-K districts became age-eligible for the program, their mothers’ labor force participation increased by seven percentage points compared with only two percentage points among those in non-3-K districts with children of the same age. Mothers’ participation in the workforce dropped when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, but throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021, participation remained higher among mothers in 3-K districts.
“It’s great to see that it was not just a temporary effect, but that the effect persists past the 3-K years,” says Waldfogel. “It could be because mothers having been employed in the labor market puts them in a better position to be employed subsequently. Also, the availability of 3-K sets up family routines and arrangements around mothers’ employment.
“We were really happy to see that it was a lasting effect.”
Researchers also found that families in the 3-K districts spent an average of $450 less per child per month on child care.
“The ability to spend those dollars on food, rent, books or household expenses, especially as inflation is putting such pressure on families, really underscores the benefits of these programs,” says Sarah Oltmans, Robin Hood’s chief of grant strategy, who works with the Columbia team on the ECPT.
Tracking Poverty, Promoting Change
Since its inception, the Poverty Tracker has deeply scrutinized what it means to be poor in New York City, providing many more layers than the official poverty measures of the U.S. government, which capture only income poverty. Oltmans points out that income poverty doesn’t tap into measures of financial or material hardship. A family might have a certain income on paper but run out of food at the end of the month, have their utilities shut off or be unable to afford child care so they can go to work. These measures provide a dynamic, nuanced picture of poverty and, as the 3-K report demonstrates, can also show where changes in policy result in big changes in individuals’ lives, even for the city’s smallest residents.
The Poverty Tracker surveys have provided an evidence-based, data-driven resource for Robin Hood and other advocates to be able to talk to policy makers and community leaders about what works, Oltmans says. The reports are published in academic journals and presented at conferences, but they are especially tailored for rapid release, so they reach decision makers, whether in New York City or beyond.
That rapid deployment may be especially needed now. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package the U.S. Congress passed in March 2021, ended in September. The funding has been widely used to support child care and early education programs throughout the country, including New York City’s 3-K program. Robin Hood and other advocates are working to make sure sustained support continues for these types of programs and the 3-K report is a prime way to show such programs’ benefits, Oltmans says.
Still More to Learn
The researchers warn that the findings of the 3-K study can’t be considered a stand-in for the rest of the country because of wide variations in individual circumstances.
“Some studies of the impact of free preschool on mothers’ employment report findings similar to ours,” says doctoral student Cha. “Others show that there is little effect and find that mothers are not as responsive to free child care. But in the context of New York, we did find that lowering child care costs makes meaningful changes in mothers’ decision to work.”
In less urban or in rural areas, the researchers say, the costs of getting the child to and from child care may be so expensive as to make even free child care unaffordable. In some states, free 3-K or pre-K means part-time or half-day programs, which can do little to give the mother sufficient time to get the child to care, go to work, then turn around and pick them up again.
Though New York City’s free 3-K program is an ambitious and important beginning, the researchers stress that there’s more demand for child care throughout the city and more work to be done in aligning child care programs with parents’ work schedules.
Even though New York City’s program has helped lighten the load for some mothers in the workforce, Waldfogel stresses that the issue isn’t limited to families in poverty or even those with lower incomes.
“Every parent in the country goes through this worry,” she says, “because child care is a private issue in the U.S. You talk to any politician about any family issue and the first question they raise is child care because that’s what they’re hearing from their constituents—from middle-income constituents and even high-income constituents.
“Everybody is aware of it and complains about it, but somehow we still haven’t gotten over the hurdle of doing something about it.”
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.