A recent poll revealed that more than three-quarters of US mothers passed up work opportunities, switched jobs or quit to look after their children. Recent figures also show that their average future wages fall by 4% per child born – 10% in the case of the highest earning, most skilled women.
Nationally, full-time childcare costs a staggering 85% of the median cost of rent. And little is improving; due to federal budget cuts, fewer children in the US now have access to subsidised child care than in 2001.
But one state is powering ahead. In the race to become New York’s mayor in 2013, Bill de Blasio’s top campaign pledge was universal pre-K: a free year of full-day preschool for all four-year-olds in the city.
The implementation of the program has been widely praised for its role in tackling early inequality, as it tripled the number of pre-K places available in two years. But it is also helping the city’s mothers. In a press release, de Blasio stated that the pre-K program is now “saving parents money and helping them work.”
While New York has – rightly – been seen as a pioneer, this rhetoric above all reinforces how far behind the US really is.
“If we don’t have childcare or elderly care it will always turn back to the women in the family”
Scandinavian countries were the first in the world to offer families state subsidised childcare – not at the last election, but far back into the last century.
“In the 1970s, we had three big reforms that led female labour force participation to soar from 50% to 80% in just 10 years,” said Johanna Storbjörk, a political advisor at Sweden’s Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
“We went from taxing married people together to taxing them separately. We introduced parental leave for both mothers and fathers. And, critically, huge developments in childcare made it possible for women to leave their children and go to the workplace,” she said. “If we don’t have childcare or elderly care it will always turn back to the women in the family.”
Swedish parents pay on average just 11% of the cost of a childcare place, the lowest fees among OECD countries. Government picks up the rest of the bill.
A similar story can be told in Denmark. “Our system today traces back to the 1960s, and one of the reasons for developing comprehensive daycare was to provide more employees for the labour market,” said Sofie Agnete Bislev, head of the daycare section at Denmark’s Ministry for Children and Social Affairs.
Denmark and Sweden now have the two highest rates of maternal employment in the OECD. (The US is 26th.) While the average OECD gap between men and women’s labour force participation is 17%, in Sweden that gap is just 3% and in Denmark, 5%.
“Most children are in full time daycare – they can stay in the daycare facility from when it opens to when it closes”
The idea that access to comprehensive, affordable childcare is a service the state should provide to everyone – and not a privilege for a select few – is now ingrained in these societies.
“Most children are in full-time daycare – they can stay in the daycare facility from when it opens to when it closes – and that time varies from facility to facility,” said Bislev.
Practically every child in Denmark attends formal daycare before they go to school. About 97% of three to five-year-olds are enrolled in full-time daycare, and 66% of under-twos attend pre-school – the world’s highest rate.
“Daycare is above all a social service for parents, providing them with flexibility and options to plan their work and everyday life. But it’s also an educational service targeting the children; there is a specific intent to provide all children with equal opportunity for learning and developing,” she said. “It’s quite accepted in Denmark that it’s probably better for children to be in daycare.”
Similarly, in Sweden the comprehensive pre-school system is seen as having a dual purpose: it’s a service that the state is responsible for providing, and an important opportunity to combat inequality at a young age.
“We have a general childcare from three years; at that age you have right to totally subsidised preschool for 25 hours a week. That’s the national law – but most municipalities have better provisions: in Stockholm, you have the right to 40 hours of totally subsidised preschool, and many working parents can have even more,” said Storbjörk.
There are clear benefits to these comprehensive systems, but – unsurprisingly – also hefty costs. After Iceland, Denmark and Sweden spend more as a percent of GDP on early childhood education and care than any other OECD country. The spend of 1.5% compares to just 0.5% for the US. If the US were to spend the same proportion of GDP as Scandinavia on pre-school care, it would be spending almost $28 billion a year.
However, while these sums seem vast, and implementing a universal childcare system is an expensive endeavour in the short-term, evidence suggests that there are long-term economic benefits.
“Childcare is a means to boost economic growth. If we have parents working now, it means they don’t have to have support when they’re older”
The first is the boost to female labour force participation. One ten-country study across the OECD concluded that halving the price of childcare increases the total number of hours worked by mothers by 7-10%.
“Childcare is a means to make economic growth. If we have parents working now, it means they don’t have to have support when they’re older – it’s good for society,” said Storbjörk.
A comprehensive system also creates jobs for care workers – another vehicle of economic growth. It is estimated that investing 2% of GDP in care industries could create 1.5 million jobs in the UK alone. Pre-school also boosts children’s academic performance and long-term earnings.
In fact, a 2016 report by the US’ Council of Economic Advisers estimated that every dollar invested in early learning initiatives provides total benefits to society of around $8.60.
While spending billions on small children may seem unrealistic to many, these long-term benefits are readily accepted in Scandinavia. In fact, according to Bislev, the Danish system does not even go far enough.
“In my view, the portion of our GDP that we spend on daycare is not especially large – in fact, it could be larger. Parents pay some money for daycare – but when it comes to schools, our public school system is completely free of charge, so more could definitely be done,” said Bislev.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Siavash Ghadiri Zahrani)