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  • Children from lower-income backgrounds benefit the most from external child care, while children from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have their developmental course largely unchanged one way or the other. Tweet This
  • [I]t does appear fair to say that heavy doses of external child care for very young infants may have negative impacts. Tweet This

As the Biden administration moves toward an expansion of publicly-supported child care, some conservatives have raised objections here at IFS that external child care is harmful for children. While I have refuted these assertions elsewhere, a more nuanced and reasonable question remains: is it true that high-quality child care works well for all children, or should child care only be promoted for the children of lower-income families?

To briefly review: there is a tremendous difference between high-quality child care and low-quality child care. The latter is generally characterized by high adult-to-child ratios and caregivers who are deeply stressed and inattentive to their little charges. No one thinks low-quality care is good for any child, and frankly, it’s one of the reasons advocates push so hard for increased public funding: a struggling, money-starved system, where teachers make around $11 an hour with few benefits, and up to half leave every year, is not the stuff of quality. Stipulating, then, that the question is one of high-quality care’s effects on children from  families with higher incomes, what does the research say?

In essence, as I’ll show below, the research says multiple things can be true at once—children from lower-income backgrounds benefit the most from external child care, while children from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have their developmental course largely unchanged one way or the other. However, child care certainly does not harm these children, and it benefits their family units as a whole by stabilizing finances and aiding parents who want to work outside the home. 

It is somewhat striking how consistent the null finding for well-off kids in high-quality care has been in more recent and sophisticated research (a side note: the research I’m going to cite is international, as the U.S. has such a weakly-funded system that it’s difficult to study without quality issues swamping the results; these studies tend to focus on child care centers as opposed to family child care or other informal settings, important as they are). For instance, one analysis of Quebec’s system concluded, “Against traditional notions surrounding the implementation of universal child care, those in the top half of the [income] distribution are generally unaffected by the policy.” 

Similarly, a study of German jurisdictions implementing different versions of child care expansion stated: 

The differences between children with and those without a college-educated mother are more striking in terms of the effects on children's socio-emotional skill development. While there are no significant effects for the socio-emotional skill development of children with a high-educated mother, expanding [child care] entails sizable effects for the socio-emotional skill development of children with a low-educated mother. 

Research in Norway, taking advantage of a lottery system creating natural treatment and control groups with children as young as 15 months, further reported: “We find stronger effects of early child care start among children from low income families, and no impact among high income families in neither language nor mathematics.”

The explanatory theory scholars offer is simple: the advantages of affluence are hard to dent in either direction, whereas for lower-income kids, child care hours may be replacing hours in otherwise chaotic home environments. For example, further German research suggests that higher-income parents don’t suddenly stop reading to their kids or spending quality time with them upon sending the kids to child care. In fact, some research indicates parenting quality—at all income levels—may increase by having access to child care help, because parents become less exhausted and more present. As the authors put it, “Allowing parents to parent less can allow them to parent better.” At any rate, the stability of well-off families reliably overwhelms any child care effects on child development. 

This begs the question: If formal child care basically bounces off of affluent kids, why does society have a compelling interest in making it more affordable and accessible to those parents? The reason is because while the effects on children may be mild, the effects on families are most decidedly not. The costs of child care presents a tremendous burden for middle-class families, sucking up an average of 14% of the income for a family of four making between $50,000 and $100,000, and the alternative of forcing an earner out of the workforce is untenable. These are funds that plunge families into the class journalist Alissa Quart terms the “middle precariat”—they’re technically middle-class, but they live on a knife’s edge because their healthy income is sucked up by the costs of child care, student loans, and the like. The child care burden is far and away the largest financial shock. As these trends continue, middle-class children will increasingly be raised in families whose stability is tottering.

Stressed-out parents are, by any measure, more likely to exhibit suboptimal parenting practices (and, frankly, parents who are less likely to want to have more children, a major issue right now), so there’s another compelling interest. The dominant influence of parents on child development suggests that those on both sides of the aisle who profess to be pro-family should be cheerleading policies that reduce scarcity and stress across all caregiving formulations. Those not only include universal child care, but a child allowance, higher wages, and better worker protections as well.

What’s more, even setting aside the American values of freedom and choice in ensuring parents can decide whether or not to work outside the home, there are economic and even civic implications at stake. We don’t use public elementary schools as a targeted intervention, despite the fact that most seven-year-olds with a college-educated parent would probably learn equally well at home as in school. The child care function of schools is essential to our economy, and there is a grander ideal to be reached by ensuring universal access. 

There is arguably one exception to this rule, and that is very young infants. There’s meager research on this age band because the U.S. is one of the only developed countries where a six-week-old attends child care, but it does appear fair to say that heavy doses of external child care for very young infants may have negative impacts. Quality, however, is again a mediator: one study of Chile focusing on children aged 5-14 months found significant benefits in high-quality child care settings.

The infant question, however, is actually not an argument about external child care—it’s an argument for paid family leave! Most child care advocates would be thrilled to see fewer American babies attending child care centers. That said, it’s important to note that we’re talking about a small number of children to begin with, so it’s something of an overblown concern. Only around 10% of infants and toddlers are primarily cared for in centers, and these skew older; the majority of American parents with infants cobble together informal care or are forced out of the workforce altogether, with all of the attendant financial consequences.

In the end, universal child care has enormous benefits for parents—and therefore the family units in which children exist—as well as for gender equity and the economy. For children themselves, high-quality care undoubtedly helps many children from lower-income backgrounds, while having little direct effect on the already advantaged path of middle- and high-income children. Like so many arguments against directing desperately needed public dollars into a high-quality, public-private, pluralistic child care system, we should set aside concerns about the impacts on children.

Elliot Haspel is an early childhood and K-12 education policy expert and writer, and the author of Crawling Behind: America's Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or viewpoint of the Institute for Family Studies.