Who wants the government to decide how they should raise their kids? Opponents fear what will happen if the state makes child care free: families will be powerless, mothers will be forced to work, children will be removed from their homes.
What they fail to understand is that the market is already restricting the freedom of choice of families far more than the government.
Let’s say a mother with young children wants to work. Can she do this if no one is willing or able to stay at home with the kids? Only if the child care market allows it. He must find a provider near his home or workplace, obtain a location with that provider, and find a way to afford tuition. It’s not easy. Half of the country is classified as a “child care desert”. In many markets, the going rate can be as high as $15,000 to $20,000 per year. Families fortunate enough to have children in care spend a quarter of their income on such expenses.
He is not everything. The power of the market over families begins the day new parents come home from the hospital. Can they stay at home with their newborn? The labor market doesn’t think so: only a small number of workers have paid family leave, at least the poorest.
Should they have another child? Today’s parents want as many children as previous generations, but still they are having fewer children. In one survey, a surprising 64% cited the high cost of child care, while 39% cited insufficient paid leave and 38% cited its complete absence. Low-income parents are twice as likely to cite affordability issues than their more affluent counterparts.
How to reform such a cruel and unequal system? The US needs a comprehensive zero-to-five policy to counter market dysfunction.
Up to four months after birth, parents must take paid family leave. From four months to three years, they must have guaranteed access to affordable child care in centers or from home-based providers. Free preschool from three to five. From then on, the current K-12 system could begin. At all levels, all families are covered, and all can choose whether or not to participate.
These investments would enhance family autonomy by providing guaranteed alternatives to mercantile market privileges. They will also generate positive returns to the economy through children’s health, mothers’ health, educational performance and labor supply.
If decisions such as how many children to have and how to raise them reflect what families prefer, not what the market allows, then everyone will benefit.
Katherine Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant.