Lawmakers, be realistic before throwing cash at childcare

The idea that investing in child care will bring with it huge rewards is big in St. Paul.

Speaking at Laura MacArthur Elementary School in West Duluth regarding his “One Minnesota Budget,” which includes billions for early-childhood education, Gov. Tim Walz said last month, “If you take this down to a strictly economic investment, it’s 12-to-one that we get back on every dollar that we invest in early-childhood education.”

In its report, which also calls for tremendous investments in early-childhood education, the Great Start for All Minnesota Children Task Force similarly claimed that for every dollar invested in early education, the economy gets back $16, citing as its source the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Ergo, investments in early childcare pay for themselves due to such high returns to the economy.

There certainly are benefits to having access to high-quality and affordable child care. But the evidence simply does not support the idea that universally subsidizing child care brings in such huge rates of return.

For one, the research Walz and other advocates are citing is about a small and intensive program, called the Perry School Program, that was targeted at disadvantaged African American children at risk of failing school in the 1960s. In addition to providing high-quality preschool education, the program provided home visits.

Researchers have indeed observed positive social, cognitive, educational, and health outcomes not only for participants but also their siblings and descendants. The numbers for that program are not certain, though. Estimates on how much the economy benefits from these types of programs range from as low as $4 to as high as $16 per dollar invested.

Other similarly cited programs — like the Abecedarian program in North Carolina, implemented in the 1970s, and the Child-Parent Centers (CPC) in Chicago — follow the same formula. Both programs are targeted at disadvantaged African American children, and, in addition to preschool, they involve parents and provide home visits as well as other things like health screenings and speech therapy.

These are conditions hard, if not impossible, to replicate at a universal scale. Even if they can be replicated, it is highly unlikely the returns to society would be the same for every child or even be long-lasting. Researchers looking at Head Start, which is perhaps the most universal program in the U.S., have recognized that more disadvantaged low-income children seem to reap bigger gains from the program than do fellow participants.

The same is true for other large-scale programs like the Chicago CPC, whereby “children in the highest poverty neighborhoods benefited more from participation than children in lower poverty family settings.”

While children benefit from Head Start, impacts from the program are more modest compared to those from small and targeted programs, and in some cases they fade out with a certain age. Some researchers, like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have even found that participation in Head Start is linked to negative outcomes among children. This is in line with studies finding similar negative outcomes with universal programs enacted in places like Quebec, and Tennessee.

The fact of the matter is that child outcomes are more dependent on the home environment. A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, for example, found that children develop better when they have a good home environment. Specifically, the research found that factors like household income, parental level of education, and whether it’s led by a single parent or two parents are better determinants of how well a child turns out in his or her early years. Other factors like the mother’s personality and sensitivity to her children also significantly affect kids’ development.

Certainly, for children growing up in more disadvantaged households, high-quality child care can mitigate the effects of negative home experiences by providing a more nurturing and conducive learning environment, leading to such substantial gains that we see in these targeted programs.

But the idea that spending billions to subsidize early child care for everyone will pay for itself is simply not supported by evidence. Even left-leaning organizations like the Brookings Institute recognize that.

This piece originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on March 3, 2023