Supporting families supports the economy: Social nets are economic foundations

Children play in a daycare

“Why I won’t support spending another 3.5 trillion… There’s not a rush to do that right now. We don’t have an urgency. Don’t you think we ought to debate a little bit more, talk about it, and see what we’ve got out there?”

– Senator Joe Manchin in the Wall Street Journal

It is time to change the narrative around social infrastructure investments for families. We beg to differ with people like Senator Manchin. It is urgent that our country invest in high-quality care, family leave, and universal pre-K not only because it helps children thrive in high-quality early environments, but because it enables parents to enter the workforce—raising families out of poverty. Remarkably, in 2017, the United States ranked 30th out of 33 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in public spending on families and children, which includes policies such as child payments and allowances, parental leave benefits, and child care support. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center noted that of the 41 industrial countries surveyed, only the U.S. did not have a policy around paid parental leave.

The proposed $3.5 trillion bill before the U.S. Congress right now could go a long way toward bringing the United States into alignment with other industrialized nations around the globe. It calls for a universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds; enhanced child care for working families; a total of 12 weeks of guaranteed paid parental, family, and personal leave; and a child tax credit totaling $3,600 for each child under 6 and $3,000 for each one under age 18.

What the science shows on social infrastructure policies

The scientific evidence shows why investments in each of these policies are an investment in the future—not just in the long run with respect to child outcomes, but in the short run with respect to parental employment. The COVID-19 pandemic laid the problem bare. Women represented half of the workforce in 2020—a number that post-pandemic fell by 56 percent. When child care was unavailable, women became the default option, drastically reducing family income. Reduced family income appears to lead to lower social and cognitive outcomes for children. Current work by Professor Kim Nobel and her team is investigating through a randomized controlled study whether paid allowances from $20 to $333 per month would raise achievement outcomes for children as has been clearly shown in prior research.

The science also speaks to the longer-term improved outcomes of high-quality child care, family leave, and universal pre-K for the children. With respect to early child care, the evidence is substantive. The small-scale Perry and Abecedarian research experiments demonstrated that high-quality child care could lead to higher levels of education, employment, and health and lower levels of incarceration as adults. These studies demonstrated that participants’ lives could be changed with responsive, supportive, and stimulating child care experiences. The larger-scale Infant Health and Development Program noted similar benefits when combined with home visiting. These programs stressed high-quality language interactions (back and forth conversations, shared book readings, and rich vocabulary), nutrition (prenatal and beyond), and healthy parenting strategies (feeding and sleeping routines, strategies to deal with misbehavior, and so on). A large and comprehensive study of early child care, the NICHD Study of Early Care, found that high-quality child care starting in infancy is linked to higher outcomes on math and reading tests that persisted until age 15, and higher levels of education and employment at 26 years of age.

Taken together, the scientific data strongly suggests that supporting families supports the economy. It helps to fill jobs today and it helps to prepare children for the workplace of tomorrow.

With respect to paid family leave (PFL), several studies indicate that it improves the infant’s health and early development, maternal well-being, and longer-term maternal employment.  A series of studies using rigorous quasi-experimental designs and representative national samples indicated that infants had higher levels of cognitive and behavioral skills when mothers spent their first six to 12 months at home with them. More recent rigorous quasi-experimental research of California’s PFL found improvements in the infants’ overall health and reductions in asthma, as well as higher levels of coping with the challenges of parenting, parental engagement, and an increased likelihood that skilled women return and stay in the workforce after the birth of their child.

Finally, scaled studies of universal pre-K highlight that rigorous high-quality experimental programs support children through large gains in academic skills, and moderate to small gains in social skills and executive functioning; follow-up studies have shown long-term gains such as modestly higher academic skills in upper elementary school and  higher levels of high school graduation and college entrance. In addition to improving child outcomes, access to subsidized care increases employment among parents of young children. Thus, research suggests that investing in family leave, increased access to high-quality child care, and universal pre-K will boost children’s cognitive and social skills.

The critical child care shortage

These promising studies from the child care literature mask another critical issue. The U.S. system depends on parent fees to pay for child care, and thereby limits the salaries of child care providers. Child care workers who are entrusted with the nation’s youngest children are, on average, paid less than $11 an hour. Indeed, on a list of professions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers rank right between laundry and dry-cleaning workers and parking lot attendants. Child care centers now struggle to recruit teachers given they can earn more at almost any other job, leaving many centers unable to open post-pandemic. Parents of young children, especially mothers, cannot return to the workforce without child care, leaving many employers unable to fill positions. Furthermore, the low salaries make it difficult for programs that try to provide high-quality care to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers.

If child care programs do not open—or if children are in custodial rather than in high-quality environments—child care programs cannot deliver on the promise of better outcomes. With limited access to child care, employers find it more difficult to fill open positions, families with young children face financial loss, and children lose their opportunity for an academic and social booster.

Taken together, the scientific data strongly suggests that supporting families supports the economy. It helps to fill jobs today and it helps to prepare children for the workplace of tomorrow.