Having a child, while rewarding, comes with a steep price. The average cost to raise a child to 18 is now $230,000 for a typical family. Diapers, formula, clothing, medical and dental – the expenses often make child care, including early development programs, out of reach for many parents.
Yet, a growing body of research suggests these programs are more beneficial than previously thought – especially for disadvantaged children and their families. And it has the biggest positive effect on women’s employment and pay, and the sons they raise.
According to a new study by Nobel-winning economist James Heckman and researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Southern California, early childhood development programs can deliver an annual return of 13 percent per child on upfront costs through better outcomes in education, health, employment, and social behavior in the decades that follow – a rate of return that’s comparable to returns on a savings account or the stock market. In one group analyzed, mothers earned more when children were in preschool, and the effect was still there after several decades.
When boys in this group reached age 30, they had earned on average $19,800 more annually than those in the control group. They also received an additional six months of education. Girls in this group received two more years of education and earned about $2,500 more than girls in the control group.
In an interview with UChicagoNews, Heckman said, “Investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age five not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”
In other words, early child development programs can make children and parents more successful.
Olga, a freelance writer and mother of three, is forever grateful to the women who ran the early child care program her children attended. “My kids started daycare at six months old (all three of them) and that allowed me to finish my thesis, and later to start my blog, not to mention that it saved my sanity,” she told me. In addition, the program taught her children their third language, giving them an advantage over other kids the same age.
Yet, a report by New America and Care.com put the average cost of child care at $16,514 a year – ranging from $10,468 for a center-based child care program to $28,905 for a nanny. With the average household income just shy of $52,000, combined with average living expenses that topple $1,500 a month, the cost of early child development programs are prohibitive for many families who struggle to balance the demands of caring for their children with working.
The Department of Health and Human Services says child care should cost around seven percent of a family’s income at most. In the Care.com survey, one in three respondents said they spent at least 20 percent of their annual household income on child care. Nearly one in three parents would put themselves in debt (or even further in the hole) to pay for child care, up from 25 percent in 2016.
Sadly, it’s children whose parents can least afford child care who would benefit from it the most. Children born into affluent families usually have more options, and access to higher quality early programs. Heckman’s study demonstrated long-term results by following children from birth until age 35. Two programs in North Carolina were analyzed. Both offer free, full-time care to lower income children. Data from the two studies was collected and calculated using a return on investment through life outcomes, such as health, involvement in crime, labor income, IQ, and increases in mothers’ labor income as a result of subsidized childcare. In addition to better outcomes in the areas identified, Heckman and his team also found that children in the two programs saw a permanent boost in IQ.
Another recent study, which followed nearly one million children in Denmark from birth through old age, revealed that high-quality preschool had multigenerational benefits. Children who attended these programs had more schooling and an increased likelihood of living beyond 65. They also had children who received more education and greater employment opportunities.
Olga reflects on her upbringing, from the other side of the fence, as that of a daughter. “I had a nanny when I was a child while my mom worked,” she said. “She’s in academia and she is now a highly recognized expert in her field. My father stayed at home more, but I loved my nanny. And I know without her, my mom wouldn’t be able to come as far as she did. And, no, I don’t think it was bad for me to have a nanny.”
So, while expensive at the onset, high quality child care programs may be worth the long-term investment – with greater financial, social, and health returns.