The Uncomfortable Truth About Daycare

And the Opportunity We Have in Minnesota

In the Summer 2016 issue of National Affairs, Carrie Lukas and Steven E. Rhoads challenge the conventional wisdom that babies and young children derive no benefit from being cared for full time by mothers.  Even when mothers return to work during the first year of their child’s life, it may “confer both advantages and disadvantages and that for the average non-Hispanic white child, those effects balance each other.”

In their article, The Uncomfortable Truth about Daycare , Lukas and Rhoads point out that the reality is more complicated.  They cite a 2010 study that that found that when mothers went back to work made a difference.  It also mattered whether mothers worked full time or part time.  The study found that, irrespective of quality or type of care, time in child-care in the first 54 months (4 1/2 years) of life was predictive of more risk taking behavior and impulsivity.

The authors also discuss research conducted following a major child-care policy change instituted in Quebec. 

Starting in 1997, Quebec introduced full-day kindergarten for all five-year-olds and heavily subsidized daycare for four-year-olds.  This policy was extended to three-year-olds in 1998, two-year-olds in 1999, and all babies up to age two in 2000.   

One prize-winning study published ten years later concluded that children’s outcomes worsened under the expanded program. 

“We also find suggestive evidence that families we study became more stressed with the introduction of the program.  This is manifested in increased aggressiveness and anxiety for the children; more hostile, less consistent parenting for the adults; and worse adult mental health and relationship satisfaction.”

Lukas and Rhoads also referenced a study by researchers here at the University of Minnesota.  They monitored the levels of cortisol in 55 children when they spent the day at a daycare center and when they spent the day at home. The researchers found a "significant effect of setting (home vs. child care)," with cortisol rising significantly when children were in daycare, while no similar increase was seen among children at home. Toddlers appeared particularly vulnerable.

The authors do note that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who start child care at age three appeared to benefit in terms of development scores.  This suggests that there would be individual and social benefits from targeting assistance for early-education and care programs at less-advantaged children, especially after age three, rather than universal daycare subsidies.

This National Affairs article is very timely, given the strong push in Minnesota for universal pre-kindergarten.  It makes a persuasive case that universal pre-k may not, in fact, be the best plan for the majority of children under 3 years old.  It may be the right option only for disadvantaged children for which the good outcomes of intervention would outweigh the bad over time.

What choice do parents of young children have?  Both parents may need to work to afford the costs of maintaining a family that includes young children.  There is no question that child care is an expensive burden on families.  Mothers or fathers may strongly prefer to stay home to raise young children, but they struggle to make it a financially viable option.

Rather than Universal pre-K, Minnesota should consider a targeted increase in the dependent tax credit to parents with children under the age of three 

  • It would represent a positive way to return some of our tax surplus to Minnesota residents. 
  • It leaves it up to the parents to decide what they would like to do with the extra income (stay at home, reduce hours at work, use it to offset daycare costs). 
  • Gov. Dayton’s proposal of universal pre-k gives parents only the option of dropping their kids off at public schools rather than the opportunity to raise them at home.