POLITICS
09/21/2015 10:47 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2015

Here's A Child Care Plan That Hillary Clinton Probably Shouldn't Copy

The effort was good for the economy -- but maybe not for the kids.

President Barack Obama has called for new programs to help working parents pay for child care. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have done the same.

All of them may want to read a new, sobering paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday. The paper describes what’s been happening in one Canadian province where a sweeping child care program has been in place since the late 1990s. 

If the paper’s authors are correct, Quebec's economy is better off -- but Quebec's kids aren't. 

Here’s how the program works: All families in the province can get child care from licensed providers, while directly paying just a few dollars a day. The amounts are small because government subsidies are covering most of the cost.

In many respects, the program has accomplished precisely what its architects hoped it would: It has alleviated the financial strain of child care bills on lower-income families and encouraged more women to join the workforce, which has presumably boosted economic growth.

But this new study -- conducted by Michael Baker from the University of Toronto, Jonathan Gruber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kevin Milligan from the University of British Columbia -- suggests that this success has come at a price. After the child care subsidies were introduced, Quebec's teens and young adults were more likely than demographically similar peers in other Canadian provinces to suffer from self-reported health problems and have trouble with the law, according to the research.

It’s just one paper, and the authors include all of the usual scholarly caveats about the study's limitations. Proving that the child care program actually caused these problems is difficult. Also, the general findings don't necessarily apply to every individual: Plenty of young children in Quebec are probably getting great child care and thriving because of it.

But it's the overall trend that should matter to policymakers, and these findings are consistent with some previous research, including an earlier examination of the Quebec program by the same three authors. That study concluded that, following the introduction of the child care subsidies, young children in the province were more likely to have “non-cognitive” problems like aggressive tendencies and emotional instability. These problems strongly correlate with poor future performance in school and the workforce.

The new study attempted to determine whether those effects lasted past early childhood. The authors concluded that they have:

We find that the Quebec policy had a lasting negative impact on the non-cognitive skills of exposed children … At older ages, program exposure is associated with worsened health and life satisfaction, and increased rates of criminal activity. Increases in aggression and hyperactivity are concentrated in boys, as is the rise in the crime rates. 

Why might Quebec’s program be having negative effects? The paper cannot answer that definitively, and there may be no simple answer.

But one factor could be age. The Quebec program is designed for children up to 4 years old. However, the developmental needs of infants, young toddlers and preschoolers are very different -- and it’s possible, for example, that older kids are doing fine in the program, but younger kids are not. That might be an argument for making sure paid family leave is both available and sufficiently generous, so that parents of newborns wouldn’t have to return to their jobs so quickly. 

One takeaway from the study: Child care, done properly, isn't cheap.

Another possibility is that, in Quebec, parents used the subsidies to pay for mediocre or poor-quality care. As the researchers note, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that intensive early childhood programs, with set curricula and low ratios of adults to children, can have strongly beneficial effects, particularly for low-income families. Examples of such programs include the Highscope Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, which social scientists and politicians frequently cite as model initiatives.

But programs like these require a great deal of planning, training and funding. In Quebec, the child care available to most working parents may not have lived up to those standards. For example, many of the initiative's champions hoped to phase out for-profit child care, which many experts believed to be of inferior quality, but that never happened.

“Since the goal of subsidies is usually to support employment, the emphasis is on serving as many children as possible, rather than on purchasing more expensive higher quality care for fewer children,” Columbia University's Jane Waldfogel, one of the nation’s leading experts on early childhood policy, told The Huffington Post in an email. “As a result, there is little evidence that child care subsidies provide developmental benefits for children; and in fact, there is some evidence -- such as the Quebec research by Baker, Gruber, and Milligan -- that they can be harmful."

"But let’s be clear what these programs are," Waldfogel added. "They are child care subsidies that act to increase maternal employment and to increase the use of child care, which is often of dubious quality. They are not universal preschool or prekindergarten programs.”

If that’s the case, one solution might be to tie subsidies to quality -- say, by requiring parents to enroll their kids in high-performing child care settings in order to receive financial assistance.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to Democratic Party leaders, recently suggested such a scheme. After an initial phase-in period, it would make child care subsidies available only to parents who use providers that meet standards for workforce training, low ratios of adults-to-children, and other factors that affect the kind of attention and nurturing that youngsters would receive.

Of course, the the Center for American Progress proposal is preliminary, and doesn't provide a lot of detail on how to define quality, let alone on how to achieve it. It would also cost $40 billion a year.

But maybe that’s the real message of Baker, Gruber and Milligan's new research: child care, done properly, isn’t cheap. Helping parents pay for it can do a lot of good in the long run, but it requires a big investment up front.

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