It was only a few weeks ago that President Obama surprised nearly everyone by announcing a push for universal preschool in his State of the Union address and then traveling to Georgia, home of a successful preschool system, to talk it up. The announcement kicked off a debate: Is the cost of universal preschool worth it? Does it really help children learn better later in life?
Mostly missing from that conversation, though, was the other half of the equation: working parents, specifically mothers, given that women still spend the most time caring for children. The benefits for children seem pretty clear, but we have to add in the benefits that women will see if they have a quality and affordable place to send their kids every day when they head to work.
The peace of mind that comes with that may not be quantifiable, but the impact on women’s lives certainly is.
Today’s families look nothing like the 1960s ideal where a woman stays home to bake, do laundry and care for young kids. Just one in five families is modeled after that gauzy image. The rest have to find somewhere for their kids to go before they’re old enough to go to school. In the United States that often means 5 years, as that’s the age at which we guarantee at least part-time public education for children. It’s also generally available to everyone for children ages 3 to 5 in thirteen of our developed peers throughout the rest of the world. But here at home less than 45 percent of 4-year-olds and only one in five 3-year-olds are enrolled in public kindergarten or nursery school.
So what are working parents supposed to do? Some low-income families can enroll in Head Start and Early Head Start, although only about 40 percent of eligible children living in poverty are served by the former and a mere 4 percent are served by the latter, and those slots could be cut by 70,000 by the sequester. Others turn to childcare centers, but the cost of that care is incredibly expensive and subsidies are failing to reach many needy people. Others are lucky enough to rely on family members. Those who manage to figure it out see a huge boost to their careers and therefore their finances: one study found that mothers who had a regular care arrangement for their children were twice as likely to stay in their jobs than those without.
But some simply can’t make it work. Working parents miss an average of nine days a year due to an inability to get care for their kids. Many other mothers decide to cut back on their work hours or leave the labor force altogether to make the whole thing work.
Enter universal preschool. With somewhere affordable and high quality to send their children, parents have a far easier time getting to work. In fact, a study found that fully funding early childhood education through the government would increase employment among mothers by up to 10 percent – an extra woman in the workforce for every ten. That’s hugely important when you consider that we’re falling behind our peers when it comes to the share of women in our workforce. But it will also have an important benefit for women who are better able to invest in their careers and earn higher wages without so many interruptions.
Read more from Bryce Covert on how the floor of the economy has dropped for everyone in “We’re All Women Workers Now.”
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