In his first address to Congress, President Biden proposed spending an extra $225 billion on child care. That’s on top of the $40 billion the administration is already spending as part of the “bailout” of child-care providers in Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, and the $10.3 billion the federal government normally spends on child-care subsidies. The new plan, billed as an effort to help low- and moderate-income families, would put America on a path to becoming a society where the state assumes much of the care of young children. Many Republicans have balked at the cost of Mr. Biden’s spending blowout, but in this case the substance matters more than the money. A dramatic expansion of child care is a bad deal for American parents. More important, it’s a bad deal for American children.
Criticism of the Biden approach invites immediate scorn from certain elite quarters. Brown University economist
argues that criticisms of Mr. Biden’s proposal are “not supported by the data. . . . Child care is not ‘terrible for children.’ ” The essential point isn’t that “child care” is bad for kids, however, but that a federal push to get droves of children into daycare is. These are two different things, raising radically different questions. For example, how can we ensure safe facilities and capable caregivers for millions of additional children moved abruptly into child care? Hardly a trivial logistical challenge.
Moreover, the available empirical data contradict Ms. Oster’s argument. In 1997 the provincial government of Quebec began offering child care for 5 Canadian dollars a day to all families, regardless of income. Almost two decades later, economists Michael Baker,
found that children from two-parent families who participated showed significant increases in anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity. Those effects persisted—and even grew—as they reached young adulthood. Self-reported health and life satisfaction decreased significantly. Boys who participated were more likely to commit crimes. It was, to put it bluntly, a disaster for Quebec’s children.
Some advocates argue that Quebec’s failure proves simply that low-quality care produces low-quality results, something they think the U.S. could surely avoid. This ignores the federal government’s persistent failure to provide high-quality care for the relatively small number of children in the $10 billion Head Start program. It also ignores that even high-quality child care in the U.S. is linked to negative social and emotional outcomes for children who spend lots of time in institutional care. A major longitudinal study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that the more time infants and toddlers spent in nonfamilial care, the more likely they were to engage in aggressive, disobedient or risky behavior.
That doesn’t mean child care is bad for all kids. Research shows that high-quality care is often beneficial for children from disadvantaged homes. But young children from average, healthy homes can be harmed by spending long hours in child care. Moving millions of young children out of their homes into nonparental group care will have unintended negative effects on children’s emotional and social well-being.
Our democracy might be comfortable with the trade-offs here—higher gross domestic product and more parents (especially women) in the workforce on one hand, and unhappier, unhealthier children on the other. But we ought to be honest and acknowledge that these trade-offs exist.
The uncomfortable truth for many highly educated professionals is that their views on these trade-offs are influenced by their social class. Research shows that it’s the best-educated who attach the most meaning to their jobs. In 2019, the Atlantic’s
documented the rise of “workism” among our wealthiest citizens: They were spending less time on leisure, more time at the office, and they derive great psychic gratification from their credentials, degrees and professional roles.
Not surprisingly, data from a recent YouGov/American Compass survey show that upper-class Americans are most likely to prefer a work-family model in which two earners rely on child care. Poor, working-class and middle-class survey respondents prefer a model with one parent working full-time and the other providing at-home child care. Many families put their kids into child care because they have to, but the clear majority of Americans say they want to spend more time with their kids. Those preferences aren’t misguided. In fact, the highest quality standards for child care promote exactly what happens in the average home—one adult in an active, stable and encouraging relationship with two to three children. This standard is difficult to duplicate in institutional settings, especially on a large scale. Public policy should reflect what most parents want instead of doubling down on the model preferred by American elites.
Several current policy proposals would do that.
Sen. Josh Hawley
has proposed a refundable “parent credit,” paid monthly, that would give parents the flexibility to choose the best path for their families. Parents could use the credit for child care if they wished, though evidence suggests many would use it instead to scale back paid employment outside the home, at least while their children are young. Sens.
have offered similarly family-focused proposals in recent months. While these policies must be debated on their merits, they all reflect a shared view: How parents want to raise their own children should drive policy, not the values of an increasingly isolated American ruling class.
A certain philosophical irony is at work here. The American left—self-righteous defenders of the worker—has landed on a policy preference fitting perfectly with its elite social status, yet serving the needs of employers at the expense of American families. A family policy that empowers parents with greater choice may reduce national GDP. It might mean lower profits for some of our biggest corporations. But it would also mean happier parents and healthier children—which seems a trade-off worth making.
Mr. Vance is an investor and author. Ms. Erickson is a Research Fellow of the Wheatley Institution.
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