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Joe Biden has a New Deal for America’s kids.
He wants to spend more than $225 billion on child care for infants and toddlers, and $200 billion for free, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.
This is being hailed as a social revolution that will finally bring the United States in line with other advanced democracies. In reality, it’s a program that shows a pronounced class bias and runs against the grain of the preferences of working-class parents.
Since it is heedless of the experience of other such mass programs in the United States and around the world, the Biden approach is also likely to fail to achieve its goals.
It’s just not true, as the Biden program assumes, that parents of young children are eager to shuttle them off to industrialized day-care or pre-K programs.
An extensive survey for the populist think tank American Compass found a stark class divide in how couples think about child care. The survey asked couples if they preferred to have one parent working full time while the other parent provides child care in the home, or to have both parents working and using child care full time.
One parent working was the preference of strong majorities of working-class (68 percent) and lower-class couples (58 percent), with a plurality of middle-class couples (38 percent) agreeing. Only a plurality of upper-class couples preferred the child-care option (44 percent).
So, Biden is talking about using taxpayer dollars to create as a default an arrangement that most parents would rather avoid.
Then, there are outcomes. In a paper this year for the Manhattan Institute, researcher Max Eden reviewed the literature: The programs that have been found to produce the most remarkable positive outcomes over the years tend to be small, expensive and very difficult to replicate.
On the other side of the ledger, there’s the Quebec Family Policy. The Canadian province developed a crash program in the late 1990s that rapidly expanded child care, with generally deleterious effects. Researchers found increased behavioral, social and health problems for the kids, and, interestingly, worse outcomes for parents, too.
The results were, in the words of one authoritative study, “striking in their consistent indication of a substantial negative impact of universal child care on children in two-parent families.”
The exception in Quebec, per another study, was children from single-parent families, where positive results were “particularly large for individuals at the very bottom of the distribution.”
The Quebec outcomes, as Eden notes, accord with what’s been found elsewhere — child care is best for disadvantaged children and worst for children from two-parent families.
As for pre-K, the largest study of Head Start, the federal program for low-income children, found that any early benefits faded by the third grade. Other research has been more encouraging. But a rigorous, randomized control study of low-income kids in an extensive pre-K program in Tennessee showed initial gains washed away, and then, over time, participants had worse academic and behavioral outcomes.
The research of James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at University of Chicago who studied one of the most successful programs, is often cited by advocates of universal pre-K. In an interview last year, though, Heckman stipulated that he has never supported universal pre-K. He said the benefits of a loving, engaged family have never been adequately measured.
“Public preschool programs can potentially compensate for the home environments of disadvantaged children,” Heckman said. “No public preschool program can provide the environments and the parental love and care of a functioning family and the lifetime benefits that ensue.”
All this would suggest taking a cautious approach, focused on the least-advantaged kids, rather than moving full-speed ahead on a massive federal expenditure to get as many kids into day care and pre-K as possible, probably through the existing structure of public schools.
But, in a desperate rush to spend another $4 trillion, Joe Biden wants his New Deal for kids — whether it’s good for them or not.
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