- "The crucial policy question is not, “How do we extend public education to children starting at birth?” but, “How do we promote the healthy development of all young children?" Tweet This
- "Maximizing the well-being of young children should be at the center of our thinking about early childhood policy." Tweet This
- "The primary aims of early childhood policy must be to strengthen families, support parents, and improve early health from the prenatal period on." Tweet This
Most American parents prefer flexible work and some type of at-home, parental care for their young children, yet the push for universal, center-based child care continues to be at the forefront of public policy discussions. Katharine B. Stevens, CEO of the new Center on Child and Family Policy (CCFP), agrees that “finding and affording good child care is a daunting struggle for many lower- and middle-class working families." But she and her colleagues at the CCFP, which launches today with a new website, argue that the national debate over child care policy in the U.S. is one-sided. Instead of exclusively focusing on ways to put more young children into full-time day care, Dr. Stevens wants to see child care policies that empower parents to choose the type and amount of child care that works best for their families. I recently spoke with her about these issues, including how the CCFP hopes to broaden the debate over the care of young children in this country.
Alysse ElHage: Is there a child care crisis in the United States and, if so, what are some of the top issues facing parents and policymakers that need to be addressed?
Katharine Stevens: There’s certainly been a lot of talk about the “child care crisis” over the past couple of years—in fact, it’s easy to forget that until fairly recently, the press, policymakers, and early childhood advocates were overwhelmingly focused on pre-K. But we know that young children are constantly learning wherever they are and from whomever they’re with. That’s become more widely recognized over the past several years, leading to a big increase in the focus on child care. And of course, the pandemic put a lot of stress both on families’ work-life balance and small businesses, including child care providers.
It's difficult to get a handle on the extent of the “crisis” because most of the surveys and reports cited are actually produced by child care advocacy groups. But it’s clearly the case that finding and affording good child care is a daunting struggle for many lower- and middle-class working families. And it’s true that child care is expensive—unavoidably so—simply because developing new humans is, by its very nature, a resource-intensive process.
Increasingly, though, the way the child care “crisis” is framed, both in policy debates and by the media, is taking us farther and farther down the wrong policy path. When we think about early development these days, we’ve started to think it means early school. And while it’s true that children are learning from birth, that doesn’t mean they should be in school from birth. Extending “public education” to younger and younger children is just not the right way to ensure their healthy development.
ElHage: The current national discussion over child care is often dominated by left-leaning experts. Why is this, and what important issues are being ignored or overlooked in this discussion that need to be addressed?
Stevens: Public and political interest in early childhood as a crucial area of social policy is rising, and should be, thanks to a growing body of brain science that underscores the critical importance of children’s very first years. We now know those years lay the foundation for all dimensions of human flourishing and promise an upstream solution to many of society’s biggest challenges.
But the great potential of early childhood policy to help America’s young children is hindered by a lack of political and ideological balance in the field. Early childhood policy debates are dominated by an influential network of advocates, academics, and funders focused primarily on scaling up universal preschool programs for children from birth to age five. And at the same time, right-of-center thought leaders and policymakers have long been inadequately engaged.
This has narrowed the policy focus to expanding publicly funded, non-parental, group programs instead of focusing on what matters: ensuring that all young children have the chance to thrive. An “optimal early learning environment” is increasingly defined as a non-parental, group program, which is simply incorrect. Increasingly, too, advocates emphasize the role of child care in both increasing GDP and enabling women to advance their careers by reducing parents’ role in child-rearing. But that’s the wrong focus. GDP and women’s careers are both important. But maximizing the well-being of young children should be at the center of our thinking about early childhood policy.
So, what’s being left out of the debate is the most important issue in the first place: how best to ensure children’s healthy early development. The crucial policy question is not, “How do we extend public education to children starting at birth?” but, “How do we promote the healthy development of all young children?” And once we recognize that promoting healthy early development is the core policy goal, it also becomes clear that two crucial areas of early childhood policy are being sidelined: the role of families and a focus on early health.
To improve children’s outcomes, we must emphasize policies that improve early health, strengthen families, and support parenting as the essential drivers of young children’s well-being.
ElHage: You’ve written that “gaps between research and policymaking in the early childhood field are exceptionally large.” What does the research show about early childhood care and the best environment for children? And how should science be shaping this debate?
Stevens: Rigorous research on the impact of pre-K and childcare programs on children’s development—especially for infants and toddlers—is unfortunately lacking. As one reflection of this, two tiny, experimental projects from over a half century ago are still widely cited in today’s media and policy debates on expanding preschool. More recent research, although generally less rigorous, shows some positive impacts, but also raises concerns about the longer-term effects that spending a lot of time in non-parental group care may have on young children.
On the other hand, the body of scientific research on brain development is rigorous, extensive, and unambiguous—and is often summarized as, “the first years of life are the most critical period of human development,” which is true. But beyond this vague summary, what it specifically tells us about what young children need to thrive is largely left out of current debates: that stable, nurturing relationships with loving caregivers are key to healthy early development. All young children need relatively intensive, responsive, one-on-one care to develop well. We also know that parents—often mothers—are by far the most powerful influence on children’s early development.
That tells us that high-quality child care is especially important for socially and economically vulnerable children whose parents have to work or are otherwise unavailable. Above all, though, it tells us that to improve children’s outcomes, we must emphasize policies that improve early health, strengthen families, and support parenting as the essential drivers of young children’s well-being.
Unfortunately, the predominant focus in today’s policy debates is on shorter-term advocacy for—or against—particular programs, with little attention paid to underpinning scientific principles. The field needs much greater emphasis on early development science as the basis for policies and programs that can truly improve the well-being of young children and their families. And we can’t highlight some parts of that science, while ignoring other equally important parts. When that occurs, it suggests that politics and advocacy—not science—are driving the debate.
The way the child care “crisis” is framed, both in policy debates and by the media, is taking us farther and farther down the wrong policy path.
ElHage: What about working-class families where both parents have to work, or single mothers who need better and more affordable child care options in order to survive? What are some specific ways to address these very real problems for parents who must work, without too much government involvement?
Stevens: We’re definitely not doing enough to help lower-income parents with young children, who have to work, get access to high-quality child care programs. The income cutoff for federal child care subsidies is 85% of annual state median income (averaging $80,500 for a family of four), but that cutoff is set considerably lower in most states. Even among children who are eligible for subsidies, only a small fraction actually receive them. Finally, the subsidies that families receive are often too small to access the kind of high-quality childcare that more affluent people choose for their own children.
But the challenge here isn’t a lack of government child care programs. The policy problem we have to solve is how to give young children from low-income families the same opportunity for healthy development that children of more affluent families already have.
And the solution is to do a better job of empowering lower-income parents to make good, well-informed choices. An exceptional program run out of Minneapolis—the Minnesota Early Learning Scholarships (MELS)—is a great model for accomplishing this.
MELS provides low-income working families with scholarships—kind of like Pell grants for young children—which they can use at a broad range of providers. A widely-promoted rating system, called Parent Aware, gives parents accessible, user-friendly information on providers’ locations, characteristics, and quality. At the same time, MELS’ demand-side approach focused on empowering parents has also resulted in increasing the supply of high-quality providers.
The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG)—the existing federal child care program—is a strong vehicle for accomplishing exactly this. CCDBG’s subsidies currently reach only a fraction of low-income working families and they’re often insufficient to give low-income parents access to the kind of care that more affluent families choose. But that’s not a flaw with the program’s fundamental design. Policymakers should look carefully at how we can more effectively use this existing vehicle to help low-income, working parents support their children’s early development.
Matt Weidinger of the American Enterprise Institute and I have also published a paper showing how the Child Tax Credit can be used to give lower-income families more agency in deciding how best to care for their young children, whether through non-parental care or by staying home full or part-time themselves if they choose.
Improving the well-being of America’s young children is crucial—both to their life chances and the success of our nation overall. And ultimately, the crisis we face isn’t about child care, but the experience of being a young child in America today. Our focus must be on better ensuring young children’s healthy development: giving all children the opportunity to flourish.
Two crucial areas of early childhood policy are being sidelined: the role of families and a focus on early health.
ElHage: On that note, today, you are launching a new think tank that you hope will become a big part of the solution to some of these problems we’ve been discussing. Tell us about the Center on Child and Family Policy.
Stevens: This is a crucial moment for advancing better early childhood policy. But meaningful policy debate cannot take place with only one side talking. Early childhood needs a greater range of ideologically diverse, nonpartisan organizations focused on rigorous, evidence-driven policy work, especially those emphasizing early health and the family-focused perspectives now missing from the field. Building on my years as an early childhood scholar at AEI, I’m launching the Center on Child and Family Policy to help fill this gap.
CCFP will provide a new, independent platform for high-quality research and policy analysis, aiming to advance evidence-based discussion that moves beyond advocacy and political partisanship. We believe the primary aims of early childhood policy must be to strengthen families, support parents, and improve early health from the prenatal period on. We view early development—not early school—as the key to human flourishing, and families as the key to ensuring that young children thrive. And we believe that the neuroscience of human development must play a much larger role in policymaking to improve the well-being of young children.
In particular, CCFP will emphasize early childhood policy that strengthens families and elevates the critical role of parents—empowering them to choose what is best for their own young children. We also intend to amplify policy focus on the underutilized role of public healthcare in improving child and family outcomes, and highlight the importance of improving access to high-quality preschool programs for children living in poverty and adversity by using market-based approaches that maximize parental choice. Finally, we’re aiming to broaden the policy discussion, including more diverse views and encouraging robust debate.
We’re thrilled to have a stellar advisory committee of leading child and family experts—including Oren Cass from American Compass, James Heckman from the University of Chicago, Cynthia Osborne from the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center, and Ralph Smith from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, among others—helping guide CCFP’s work to advance the well-being of America’s young children.