Beyond the 'fiscal cliff,' America's kids need more – not less – government spending
As the 'fiscal cliff' approaches, John Boehner and other lawmakers should beware of another kind of deficit – the growing opportunity deficit for low-income US children, already present by the time they enter kindergarten. Government can help with universal childcare and preschool.
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The single most valuable step lawmakers could take would be to implement universal childcare and preschool. Think of it as extending public schooling down in the age range.Skip to next paragraph
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Here we can learn from the Scandinavian experience. Beginning in the 1960s, these countries introduced and steadily expanded publicly funded early education. Today, Danish and Swedish parents can take a paid year off from work following the birth of a child. After that, parents can put the child in a high-quality public or cooperative early education center. Parents pay a fee, but the cost is capped at around 10 percent of household income. The influence of parents' education, income, and parenting practices on their children's cognitive abilities, likelihood of completing high school and college, and labor market success tends to be weaker in these nations than in others.
But here in the US, if our existing public elementary and secondary schools fail to close the opportunity gap, why should we expect better results from a new early education system? Actually, our K-12 schools do help to offset the unequal effects of families and neighborhoods. In the absence of universal public schooling, the capabilities of American 18-year-olds would be even more unequal than they currently are.
Recent research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman and others finds that much of the gap between children from poor homes and those from affluent homes is already present by the time they enter kindergarten. Universal access to quality childcare and preschool wouldn't be a panacea, but it could help to make a big dent in this early opportunity deficit.
To close our yawning opportunity gap, all sides will need to bend somewhat. Conservatives and deficit hawks might recall that they have in the past been willing – wisely so – to allocate more money for opportunity-enhancing initiatives such as education funding and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Progressives might consider that getting the rich to carry a larger share of the tax burden will only reduce income inequality a little, and that universal early education and other opportunity-boosting measures would have more reach if funded by all of us.