Since the 1930s, with the introduction of Social Security, the United States has constructed—slowly, haphazardly, often painfully—a welfare state. Pensions, public housing, health care—piece by piece, the government created protections for citizens that the market doesn’t always provide. Child care is the major unfinished part of that project. The lack of quality, affordable day care is arguably the most significant barrier to full equality for women in the workplace. It makes it more likely that children born in poverty will remain there. That’s why other developed countries made child care a collective responsibility long ago.He also notes something I've been saying for a while now.
This situation is especially disturbing because, over the past two decades, researchers have developed an entirely new understanding of the first few years of life. This period affects the architecture of a child’s brain in ways that indelibly shape intellectual abilities and behavior. Kids who grow up in nurturing, interactive environments tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults—like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.But there was something he included that particularly caught my eye. When you hear people dismiss the possibility of universal pre-K ever being funded, they are likely not aware of some pretty influential people who support it.
A growing number of economists have become convinced that a comprehensive child care system is not only a worthwhile investment, but also an essential one. James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist, has calculated that, in the best early childhood programs, every dollar that society invests yields between $7 and $12 in benefits. When children grow up to become productive members of the workforce, they feed more money into the economy and pay more taxes. They also cost the state less—for trips to the E.R., special education, incarceration, unemployment benefits, and other expenses that have been linked to inadequate nurturing in the earliest years of life. Two Fed economists concluded in a report that “the most efficient means to boost the productivity of the workforce 15 to 20 years down the road is to invest in today’s youngest children” and that such spending would yield “a much higher return than most government-funded economic development initiatives.”The two Fed economists he's referring to are Art Rolnick and and Rob Grunewald who work for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. Back in 2003 they published the paper Cohn refers to suggesting that quality early childhood education is the most cost-effective investment we could make in economic development. That report changed the conversation here locally. Since then both state government and private funders have prioritized early childhood education. What we found is that it wasn't just us "bleeding heart liberals" advocating for children and mothers anymore. All of the sudden economists and business leaders joined the conversation - so it was a total package of support. And things changed.
In a July 2012 speech, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made the case that significant investment in early childhood would deliver even broader gains to the U.S. economy. “Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families,” he said, “but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits.”
That is the conversation that President Obama has sparked nationally with his proposal for the federal government to partner with states to fund universal pre-K. So don't count that one out just yet.
UPDATE: If you're interested in reading more, Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog published an interview with Jonathan Cohn.