Reading through the threads and Twitter it looks like Judith has committed a huge faux pas. The luvvies are beside themselves. As best I can work out there are two sorts of criticisms – how dare Judith suggest that there are second-rate universities? The very cheek of it.
The second criticism is that Judith has belled the cat. Mind you, it isn’t being expressed in those terms. Childcare is no longer merely a mechanism whereby children are cared for in the absence of a parent, or family member, or family friend. Childcare is now a form of social engineering by the nanny state. So what is the story?
Andrew Leigh explains:*
One promising solution [to the cycle of disadvantage] is high-impact early childhood intervention programs. In the US, careful economic evaluations – based on randomised trials from the Abecedarian, Perry Preschool, and Early Training Projects – have shown that providing intensive assistance to disadvantaged children and their parents isn’t just morally right – it can be wildly cost-effective too.
These programs admitted children into preschool at an early age (sometimes as young as 4 months), and focused on developing cognitive, language, and social skills. The target population was extremely disadvantaged. From a young age, their IQ scores were below the US average. In the Perry Preschool program, two-thirds of girls in the control group had fallen pregnant in their teens, while more than half the boys had been arrested.
When researchers followed both the treatment and control groups, they found that those who received early childhood interventions were doing better on most measures than those in the control group. The programs cost A$15,000-50,000 per child, yet they easily paid for themselves in reduced welfare spending, higher tax revenues, and less crime.
There is more:
For the most part, societies like Australia and the US have been reluctant to intervene to provide parenting skills to those struggling to raise their children. Yet in our squeamishness about crossing the line between public and private, we may be missing out on the best opportunity to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, or as Heckman puts it, the biggest credit constraint is the inability of a bright child to buy good parents.
Following up the groups as teenagers, the researchers found that those who received early childhood interventions had better cognitive and non-cognitive scores. As adults, the treatment group were more likely to have attended university, less likely to be unemployed, and less likely to be in jail. Although the programs was expensive, they more than paid for themselves in the long run. In the case of the Perry Preschool Program, the intervention cost about $US15,000 a child, but the benefits were $US105,000.
So here is the thing: if childcare is simply a mechanism to provide adult supervision in the absence of a parent, you don’t need a degree for that. If, on the other hand, the State wishes to embark on a massive poverty reduction program while providing “parenting skills to those struggling to raise their children” irrespective of whether parents need assistance or not, then you might need a degree for that.
Mind you, I’m not convinced that only people with degrees are fit to be parents. Yet all those people launching into Judith appear to be of that mind.
The other thing to note is that the evidence in this space is contested. A paper forthcoming in the Journal of Public Economics (HT: MJP) (ungated version here) suggests that social engineering aspects of child-care are overblown (emphasis added).
An important concern with much of this research is the insufficient attention paid to the potential endogeneity of child care choices. Families using non-parental arrangements may differ from those that do not in ways that cannot be fully accounted for even in richly specified child production functions. If these unobserved differences are correlated with measures of child development, a classic case of omitted variable bias arises, in which the estimated effect of nonparental care is confounded.
So what does he find?
I first show that children attending non-parental care are more economically advantaged than their peers in parent care. This positive selection suggests that OLS estimates of child care utilization are likely to be biased upward. I then recreate the standard OLS result in the literature that children attending non-parental care score higher on tests of cognitive ability, a result that holds when I account for individual fixed effects. However, the instrumental variables estimates point to sizeable negative effects of non-parental child care utilization. For example, baseline results for the measure of current participation suggest that test scores are approximately 0.29 standard deviations lower for children in non-parental settings. The negative effects are driven by participation in formal arrangements and are larger for children in economically advantaged families. Nevertheless, I show that disadvantaged children do not benefit from exposure to non-parental care.
Okay – this is just one study amongst many. But it should set the alarm bells ringing. It also undermines any social engineering arguments for childcare.
The important thing is this: regulatory interference is driving up the cost of childcare. What is it that people are paying for? For the mothers who place their children in childcare the first priority is that their children will well looked after, not that the carer has a degree.
* As always this is not an excuse for people to launch into Andrew.