How do reformers win government subsidies for childcare in a country in which both the public and policymakers view the care of small children as a family—rather than state—responsibility? Feminists have long contended that affordable childcare, like access to abortions, equal pay, and an end to sexual harassment, is a necessary precondition for gender equality (though, as Lynn Chancer observes, childcare is much less visible as a feminist issue today as it was in the 1960s). And advocates have argued since the 1980s that the reality of the two-earner American family requires state-subsidized, high-quality childcare. Still, the federal government has maintained a strikingly limited role in assisting working parents with the cost or provision of childcare.
Public preschool presents one recent exception: by re-framing “childcare” as “early childhood care and education,” reformers have successfully expanded state investments.
Today, 43 states and Washington, D.C. spend a total of almost $7.6 billion on publicly funded preschool programs for 4-year-olds, and 29 states have extended such services to 3-year-olds. Hoping to explain the dramatic expansion of the state’s role in solving a problem so stubbornly cast as a private or family dilemma, in 2017 my collaborator Kelly Russell and I conducted interviews with members of early education advocacy organizations and foundations, as well as business leaders, economists, and other unlikely messengers for state-sponsored early childhood education. We identified two keys to their strategic success: reformers played to the values and importance of public education and highlighted the economic benefits of social investment.
Spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Pre-K Now campaign, reformers in the early 2000s determined that “childcare” had effectively become a “bad brand.”
The public and policymakers viewed childcare as purely custodial and a family responsibility. But polling suggested that “education,” “learning,” and “development” all cued more positive responses as appropriate targets for public monies. The emphasis on education was not merely discursive; reformers also had a wealth of longitudinal data from the Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian project in Chapel Hill, and Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, all of which documented the long-term impact of high-quality preschool education on the lives of low-income children. Coupling such data with emerging neuroscientific research on cognitive development concentrated in a child’s first five years, reformers made a convincing case: children learn much earlier and more rapidly than we ever knew was possible, and our education systems should be reformed to take advantage of this window of opportunity.
This education narrative was a powerful re-framing of the necessity of state intervention in the lives of families with small children.
Yet in a political context in which fiscal conservatives aggressively sought to shrink the state’s role in social welfare distribution, reformers needed a stronger fiscal argument. They turned to economists like Arthur Rolnick and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, who drew on the same longitudinal studies to make the economic case: spending on high quality public preschool can, according to their calculations, yield a remarkable 16% return on public investment.
Since Pew ended its Pre-K Now campaign in 2011, the political push for public investment in early childhood education has only gained momentum. At the state level, public pre-K is widely hailed as a rare bipartisan issue. In 2018, a total of 23 governors, including 14 Republicans and 9 Democrats, referenced “early care” and “education” in their State of the State addresses. While national politics remain deeply divided, and early childhood education remains just a fraction of welfare state spending, the transformation in thinking about how to “solve” the problem of childcare cannot be overstated.
Shifting the perception of childcare from custodial care provided or paid for by the family to a constellation of early childhood care and early learning efforts as a natural extension of the state’s obligations to educate children has profoundly altered the politics of childcare.
For all the political opportunities opened up by the transformation of “childcare” into “early childhood care and education,” we must be cognizant of the consequences of this shift for working parents and gender equality. Early childhood programs can achieve their goals in ways that do not necessarily support maternal labor force participation or the needs of working families. For example, whereas childcare programs are typically structured around a full work-day, most public early childhood programs are half-day programs. Childcare programs typically run year-round, yet most early childhood programs are tied to the public school system and run for only nine months. And while considerable public discourse has focused on the educational development of three- and four-year-olds, the needs of working parents with babies are rarely mentioned at all. Perhaps more insidiously, the logic of “social investment,” which drove the political shift from childcare to early childhood education, generally construes children as a “good investment” in ways that implicitly suggest that women are not. In privileging the “investible child,” the social investment framework for early childhood education conflates—or worse, subordinates—women’s rights to the rights of their children, limiting women’s capacity to make independent demands of government as citizens in our own right.
Today, the childcare policy proposals put forward by Democratic presidential contenders – as outlined later in this Dialogue by Sonya Michel– hold some promise in terms of putting the needs of working mothers back on the political agenda, but it’s not yet clear whether they are politically viable.
American families’ need for childcare is well documented and #MeToo has helped usher in a resurgence of feminist politics, yet the fact remains: Americans, by and large, do not view childcare as a government responsibility in the same way as they view education as a government obligation. In this sense, the political success of the public preschool movement offers an important lesson for today’s policy advocates: political success comes not by demonstrating need, but by emphasizing entitlement: What do citizens deserve? What is the government obligated to provide?
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