Won’t Somebody Please (Not) Think of the Children? On the Benefits of Pre-K for Parents.

By Mike Konczal |

I wrote a piece I was pretty happy with in The American Prospect called “The Great Society’s Next Frontier.” Given that health care had passed and wasn’t going to be overturned, the question was what would be the next battles for the liberal project. Rather than showing the exhaustion of the liberal project, I found the recent State of the Union a nice checklist of things that have been done, as well as new areas to take the project next, with some markers for a longer-term agenda.

At the Prospect I noted that a mix of “predistribution” and redistribution to expand opportunities while boosting wages were going to be an important part, and two of the ideas that addressed those issues were present in President Obama’s State of the Union address: a higher minimum wage and pre-K. Pre-K is going to be a big topic, and this Boston Review symposium by James Heckman is a great place to read what experts are saying.

There’s a big debate starting about how good pre-K would be for the kids involved. Would it make them smarter, more capable adults, less likely to have pathological behaviors later in life and more likely to develop a rich range of capabilities and opportunities? There is also the conversation on what that will mean for the economy as a whole. Will an additional year of schooling make us an economically richer country? Will it be a better investment than the stock market?

But there’s a very interested party missing from this conversation, and that is parents themselves, particularly mothers who are working or would like to be. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes, pre-K “would also be hugely important in helping parents of all incomes go to work and know that their children are in good hands.”

I’m not sure what research has or has not been done on this topic, but here are some fascinating things. A 2011 report from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center on the “Economic Impacts of Early Care and Education in California” highlighted some important points. Having access to a dedicated, high-quality preschool can reduce absenteeism and turnover for working parents. Child care arrangements often break down, usually on short notice, which causes work absences as well as other problems. Headaches over child care issues can reduce productivity.

This is a fascinating experiment, from the Labor Center report:

A study of public employees in New York City who were provided with child care subsidies found that the employees had a 17.8 percent decrease in disciplinary action compared to a control group that did not receive the subsidy. Overwhelmingly, those in the subsidy group reported leaving work less often, concentrating better at work, being more productive at work, and using fewer sick days to deal with child care issues.

Fathers can and do stay home with young children, but women are more likely to do this. And this will impact women’s existence in the labor market. The OECD shows that the wage gap is significantly higher for women with children and notes that the United States’ public investment in child care (ages 0-5) is 0.4 percent of GDP, compared the average OECD of 0.7 percent. Lack of child care access also impacts whether women start businesses and whether they have career arcs that take full advantage of their talents.
This strikes me as a politically volatile point to make, if only because few people make it. Why is that? Patrick Caldwell had a piece recently in The American Prospect about the Right’s obsession with an Obama re-election campaign tool called “The Life of Julia.” The online infographic showed how government structures and counterbalances the risks and opportunities we face over the course of our lives. The Right, correctly, understands this as a challenge to its vision of the primacy of the (patriarchal) family and the market as having complete dominion over those risks. Using the state to give parents, and especially women, more opportunities to inhabit other roles, either in the market or not, is going to run straight into the Right’s worldview.
I noticed a bit of this on the Left as well, specifically the parts of the Left that are distrustful of public education. In the debate over “unschooling” (lefty homeschooling, usually as a critique of the conformity of public education), Dana Goldstein pointed out the class bias in this critique. She noted “more than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are in the workforce. One-third of all children and one-half of low-income children are being raised by a single parent. Fewer than one-half of young children, and only about one-third of low-income kids, are read to daily by an adult. Surely, this isn’t the picture of a nation ready to ‘self-educate’ its kids.” Having an additional year of school is a major boon for parents when you understand the stresses they face.
But again, I’m outside the policy topics I hang outside my wonk door. What’s your take?
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


Mother and child image via Shutterstock.com.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.