Child care, continued

I mentioned child care in my previous post and I want to take the opportunity to expand what I had to say there. A universal child care system is one of the big missing pieces of the unfinished feminist revolution. A big new social program doesn’t appear to be on even the most distant expanses of the horizon, but there’s no reason why we can’t begin to take bits and pieces of what we already have, start giving it the funding it deserves, and expand access.

For example, Head Start serves less than 60% of eligible children; why not increase funding so that there are no wait lists and the program serves all children who qualify? Pre-kindergarten is another type of early education/child care program that tends to be chronically underfunded. For instance, in my home state of Illinois, our beloved former governor Rod Blagojevich (remember him?), with a great flourish, instituted so-called “universal” pre-K in the state. Only in this case, this “universal” program is serving only 31% of 4-year olds and only 19% of 3-year olds. A number of other states also have pre-K, so expanding these programs could be one strategy toward getting us, some day, to a universal child care system.

Of course, these programs aren’t child care, per se — they are labeled “early education.” Also, Head Start and, thus far, Illinois’s pre-K program are designed to serve low-income kids. This approaches reflects public opinion surveys I’ve seen which show that people have warmer feelings toward “education” than “child care,” and that they are more likely to favor publicly subsidized child care programs targeted at low-income families only than they are to support programs that would be open to all.

And I’m not mindlessly optimistic about the prospects for universal child care, not by any means. Although early childhood education programs have well-documented, life-long benefits for the children they serve, and although even conservative business types might view these programs as sound investments, since they tend to result in higher rates of labor force participation, higher lifetime earnings, higher educational attainment, and reduced crime and welfare costs, even maintaining current levels of funding for these programs in this austerity environment is an uphill battle.

Moreover, child care is inherently vulnerable. Most people only need it for a relatively short, discrete time in their lives, and then they never need it again. In addition, the time they most need is the exact time when they are most busy and stressed by work and family obligations and have the least time to advocate for it. Finally, elite women — the kind who might have actually some sway with lawmakers — can afford to pay for their own nanny or to place their kid in a chi-chi day care center, and don’t need to rely on public child care, so they’re unlikely to be at the forefront of a universal child care movement.

At the same time, I don’t see any reason to be as sour and pessimistic as some of my political allies on the left get about this sort of thing — and heck, as I sometimes get about this sort of thing. Boxing in your imagination and telling yourself “but the bad guys always win!” pretty much guarantees defeat. Opportunities sometimes arise, and we must be prepared for them. Besides, there are a couple of reasons to be ever-so-cautiously optimistic.

One is that even in this era of draconian budget cuts, some child care programs are being spared the axe. In Illinois, for example, $73 million in proposed child care cuts were recently restored after child care advocates flexed some political muscle. Also, younger people seem to lean left in general and are more strongly supportive of education spending in particular, which bodes well for the future of early childhood education programs.

Finally, I wanted to mention a fascinating recent academic paper I came across, by a George Washington University political scientist named Kimberly J. Morgan. It’s entitled “Path-Shifting of the Welfare State: Electoral Competition and the Expansion of Work-Family Policies in Western Europe.” Unfortunately it is not, to my knowledge, available online yet, though it will be published here in January. Morgan looks at family-friendly policies, including the expansion of child care, that have developed in recent years in several countries in Europe — namely, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK — which had not been considered especially family-friendly before. According to Morgan’s analysis, this development has not been caused by the belief that early childhood education is good for children; rather, it has been driven by political parties’ desire to appeal to women voters (and not just the mothers of young children, btw), and also by the realization that these policies had broad appeal to voters generally.

That, very broadly speaking, is her argument, and it has intriguing resonances for the U.S. Of course, you can say, “that’s Europe, and we’re totally different,” and that’s all too true. But in many ways we’re quite close to the U.K. and that is one of the countries she is looking at. The path these other countries have followed may not be one that the U.S. is ready to take yet, but it may well prove a way forward. Already in the states and in some past Democratic administrations and campaigns (Bill Clinton’s Family and Medical Leave Act, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign proposal for universal pre-school) we’ve taken the first faltering steps along the way.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee