Universal Pre-K: A High Social Rate of Return for Improved Outcomes for Children and Increased Work Flexibility for Parents

Universal Pre-K: A High Social Rate of Return for Improved Outcomes for Children and INcreased Work Flexibility for Parents

Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst,  wrote on September 30th about the   the debate surrounding universal Pre-K, or access for all 4-year olds to attend a Pre-K program to better prepare them for kindergarten and, ultimately, school success, in general.  She tells of recent efforts in Japan and Germany, “two countries long considered laggards in the child care area,” to increase spending.  She explains that “President Obama is keeping the issue atop his domestic agenda, where it is gaining traction despite slim chances of Congressional approval,” as well as that” many states and several big cities have developed innovative and successful pre-K programs.”

In her article, Folbre lists the following as reasons for resistance to increased public investment in children:

  • Loyalties based on age, race and ethnicity, gender, citizenship and class have a fragmenting effect
  • Mothers are more affected than fathers, who account for a smaller share of the overall time and money devoted to children.
  • Self-interest also comes into play. Entirely self-interested individuals have no reason to worry about what happens after they die.
  • Some nonparents feel they shouldn’t be required to help subsidize parents.
  • Most families worry more about their own budgets and the relative well-being of their own children than the growth of the overall economy or average child outcomes.
  • Persistently high unemployment and the decline of middle-class jobs increase apprehensions about competition among members of the next generation.

But, then she offers ways that “universal Pre-K eases economic stress on parents and improves human resources:”

  • It helps counter economic forces that are bothdriving up the relative cost of child-rearing and increasing economic inequality.
  • Sustained below-replacement fertility will increase the share of elderly in the population, threaten national and ethnic identity, and weaken the links between present and future generations that are forged by family commitments. The taxes paid by the working-age population benefit all elderly fellow citizens, including those who have contributed relatively little to their care. In tomorrow’s global economy, the quality of future workers will matter even more than the quantity.
  • Although self-interest is at play, “a nation, like a family, hopes and plans to live on,” writes Folbre.  Therefore, efforts to help future citizens helps build our national consciousness and solidarity.

At the end of her article, Folbre reveals what Japan, Germany and some of the states in the U.S. have done to make progress in public expenditure on child care services as a percentage of gross domestic product and child care enrollment among those under age 6.  She tells use that, “currently, the United States ranks far below most members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (including Japan and Germany)” with regard to progress in this realm.  Folbre writes:

  •  Japanese anxieties about women’s labor-force participation and fertility recently prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promise a significant expansion of day care(enough to eliminate current waiting lists) by 2017.
  • In Germany, the recently re-elected government of Angela Merkel has taken a different tack, promising to increase the number of public child care slots but also creating an allowance for families who care for very young children at home.
  • President Obama couched his proposal as a federal/state partnership to expand high-quality public preschool.
  • On Sept. 22 and 23, a summit of national business leaders in Atlanta mobilized support for early childhood education, though it stopped short of endorsing the president’s plan.
  • Washington for serving a higher percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds (and spending more per child) than any state. The city’s relatively large population means that more 4-year-olds are in pre-K there than in 15 states with programs.
  • Last month in San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro greeted 4-year-olds taking part in a new pre-K program aimed at low-income families, financed by a 1/8-cent increase in the local sales tax.
  • In New York City, the Democratic mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio has called for an increase in the city’s tax rate on income over $500,000 (to 4.4 percent from the current 3.87 percent) to raise money for pre-K and after-school programs.


We can all hope, alongside Folbre, that such local and international conceptions and progressive thinking could lead up to a big national delivery for children of the United States.  The bigger hope for me is that change comes very soon for American children, since every day children are born into the current state of U.S. affairs.  Once these children are off to the wrong start with regard to brain development in the first years of life, there is, more often than not, irreparable damage done, resulting in a lifetime of language, social, emotional and sensory skills challenges both in and out of the classroom setting.


4 thoughts on “Universal Pre-K: A High Social Rate of Return for Improved Outcomes for Children and Increased Work Flexibility for Parents

    • Thanks for your comment! From what I’ve read, the only solution for funding is public-private partnerships (see: ).

      In terms of who should manage it, my vote would go for anyone with a mind for innovation, revolutionary thinking, and business as well as someone who has a thorough understanding of the brain/child development data available. My vote would not go to anyone with institutionalized thinking or a penchant for politics:-)


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