Why Affordable Child Care Is Good for All of Us

If you have affordable, reliable child care, you're among the lucky ones. . Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

Financial experts will tell you that the first thing you should you pay each month is your mortgage. Late or missing mortgage payments damage your credit, and if you miss enough of them, you risk losing the roof over your head.

If you're a parent of young children, the second thing you make sure you pay each month (or each week, more likely) is child care. While missing child care payments may not damage your credit, no one is going to watch your kids for free, which means you can't go to work and earn the paycheck that pays the rent.

Once you lose affordable, reliable child care, you feel that loss in all areas of your life. Without child care, you can't go to school (be it to get your GED or a master's degree), you can't go to work (though if you're lucky you can work from home while juggling the kids), and if you're in a two-income household, you may have to sacrifice one income so that someone can stay home with the children.

I know because I've been there. I live in Massachusetts, home of some of the most expensive child care costs in the nation, according to a report by New America and Care.com. The Department of Health and Human Services says child care should cost about 7 percent of a family's income, but a University of New Hampshire study published in 2016 found that some families pay more than 10 percent. For me, it's more like 15 to 20 percent.

Heavier burden on the poor

The UNH study also found that poor families are disproportionately affected. They "spend 19.8 percent of their income on child care — more than double the national average [of 8.8 percent]. Further, more than half of poor families (52.3 percent) spend more than 10 percent of their income on child care."

Though previous studies have linked poor-quality care for young children to achievement and behavioral issues, a new study finds that higher-quality, affordable care has multiple benefits for poor families. The long-term study, which followed children from birth until age 35, found that high-quality care can help poor mothers and their children lead more successful lives.

“They’re engaged more in the work force, they’re now active participants of society, they’re more educated, they have higher skills,” James J. Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times. “So what we’ve done is promoted mobility across generations.”

The New York Times reports:

The study analyzed two well-known experimental programs in North Carolina, which offered free, full-time care to low-income children age 8 weeks to 5 years, most of whom were black and lived with a single mother. The children in the control group were at home or in lower-quality programs. The mothers of those in the experimental program earned more when the children were in preschool, and the difference was still there two decades later. When the boys reached age 30, they earned an average of $19,800 more a year than those in the control group and had half a year more education.

As the boys became grown men, they were also less likely to use drugs, get arrested or have high blood pressure.

No, it's not cheap

Kids play with daycare teacher
The long-term benefits of public child care to society may outweigh the immediate cost increase to taxpayers. Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

Any publicly funded problem like this is going to cost taxpayers additional money. People who don't have children or people who have grown children may argue they shouldn't have to pay taxes to fund a program from which they won't benefit.

However, these studies show that investing in women and children offers a societal benefit that goes beyond an immediate individual benefit. The North Carolina programs, for example, cost more than $18,500 per child per year, but Heckman told the Times that when you factor in the future costs to society of unemployment, crime and poor health, the programs returned $7.30 for every dollar spent.

Another 2017 study out of Denmark, which followed nearly a million kids from birth through old age, also found multi-generational benefits from having access to affordable, high-quality child care. Researchers found that kids in higher-quality programs had more years of education (as did their children) and slightly longer lifespans.

So yes, implementing some sort of high-quality public child care service may be pricey at the outset, but from where I stand and speaking from experience, the long-term benefits to society's health and well-being seem to outweigh the short-term hit to our wallets.