Universal pre-K Won’t Help Americans Thrive

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Thanks to the resolve of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—which has come not without personal cost—Democrats need to shave as much as two trillion dollars off of a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that would create what the Wall Street Journal editorial board has called a “cradle-to-grave welfare state.”

In the unlikely scenario that Democrat lawmakers are actually contemplating policy items for the chopping block and not just scheming to hide the true cost of the bill, as it seems increasingly likely they’ll try to do, they should consider giving universal pre-K the axe. It’s bad for children, it’s bad for markets, and it’s bad for women, too.

Let’s start with the economic concerns, the likes of which the most convincing Soviet agitprop would be insufficient to conceal. The current Build Back Better bill proposes to pay $450 billion for childcare and universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, introducing suffocating regulations into the childcare industry in the process. As a result, the quality of childcare offerings would significantly decline across the board.

Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute, writing for The Commons at American Compass, understands this well. Looking at the effects of similar policies in the U.K., he writes that “when governments step in to cover the cost of childcare or preschool, they have to cap what they are willing to pay at a maximum subsidy rate, lest providers just ramp up their prices or consumers use the blank check to load up on limousine care.” As a result, such subsidies end up functioning as highly regulated price controls, which ultimately raise market prices for those paying out-of-pocket. The upshot is a vicious system of rising demand for more and more government subsidies to ensure consistent quality.

Additionally, the highly subsidized, highly regulated environment—one that would incentivize lead preschool teachers to have bachelor’s degrees—pushes smaller, family-run, mom-and-pop daycares out of business.

“A more classic case of the state crowding out family and civil society through regulation and then subsidy is difficult to find,” Bourne writes, describing the childcare landscape within such a framework. “Not only has the government weakened the personal responsibility of raising children, but each new policy undertaken in the name of the state bettering outcomes has brought problems that yet further interventions have been proposed to fix.”

The significance of a Cato libertarian writing for Oren Cass’s blog is not lost on Bourne. He points out that no matter where one stands in the proverbial French-Ahmari War, universal pre-K is a battlefront in which both ends of the conservative spectrum “should unite to yell ‘Stop!’ before the train to a full public takeover really gets going.” He’s right. Conservatives of all stripes and motivations should resist a government framework determined to exert control over how children are raised, rather than foster a pluralistic childcare market with a variety of strong options to fit a diverse array of parents’ needs.

But, of course, it’s not just about the market. Universal pre-K is bad for kids. In an issue brief for the Manhattan Institute earlier this year, Max Eden offers a comprehensive literature review of the developmental, hormonal, and cognitive effects of outsourcing early childcare to a public system. The results are not good. Extended childcare likely benefits the most disadvantaged children, whose home lives are otherwise more chaotic or turbulent than what state-funded childcare can provide; but otherwise, for most students, the early ejection from the nest is a losing game.

It may be verboten to say so, but the reality is that, in terms of biochemical markers, children benefit from being home with their mothers during their early developmental years. The alternative, as Eden found in his literature review, is an increase in “toxic stress” for developing brains—the long-term consequences of which can cause permanent neurochemical damage in adults. Not a good look for the so-called nanny state.

And finally, universal pre-K is bad for women, too: It misaligns with what many of them actually want. A recent study from the Institute for Family Studies corroborates this, finding that 78 percent of mothers with a child under the age of four said they would prefer child care to come from a parent or relative; only 12 percent of moms favored the idea of using daycare. Respondents from the American Compass’s 2021 Home Building Survey seem to agree. Among working-class moms of children under five, 72 percent would prefer to have one parent stay home with the kids rather than pay for childcare.

It’s worth noting that the preferences of working-class moms in the Home Building Survey misalign with those of wealthier respondents: Among upper-class moms who could reasonably afford to pay for private daycare on their own, only 17 percent preferred the idea of a stay-at-home parent. But should the preference of the minority dictate reality for the rest of America? In this case, implementing universal pre-K—complete with college-educated preschool pedagogues the state seems to value above, say, a loving but perhaps sub-educated, first-generation mom or abuela—would be a case of misplaced, progressive noblesse oblige, in which the richer echelons think they know what’s best for the humbler masses. As Wells King put it, “Let them eat daycare.”

Of course, the most interesting question of all that no one on the left or the right seems to ask themselves is why, beyond the toxic-stress implications, women outside of the highest stratosphere might want to stay home with their babies. Is it possible that intuitive working-class moms are in touch with a natural law that upper-class women have been programmed to forget?

Carrie Gress of the Ethics and Public Policy Center seems to think so. In a recent viral piece, she asks, “Why Don’t We Tell Women What’s Making Them Miserable?”, arguing that bourgeois feminist values have failed women. Despite a female vice president in the White House and the new reality that college co-eds are overtaking men on campus at record levels, she cites a 2020 Pew Report that demonstrates that over 50 percent of liberal white women under 30 struggle with mental health. In other words, not all that glitters is gold for the vocal Gen Z and Millennial girl bosses plotting to overthrow the patriarchy on Tik Tok.

Of course, universal pre-K would enable women to double down on the “culturally prescribed feminist lifestyle” of more degrees and higher earning potential. But would it reverse rates of depression and suicide which, as the piece points out, continue to rise? Gress’s conclusions imply that it won’t; she points out that personal relationships “are at the true heart of most women.” Given that premise, a government incentive to place one’s tender-aged children into state funded daycare in favor of the cubicle lifestyle hardly seems in the best interest of American moms.

The childcare provisions written into the Build Back Better package are supposed to serve as “once-in-a-generation investments in our nation’s future.” The joke here is that our children are our nation’s future—not in a figurative politician-speak type of way, but quite literally. This bill won’t serve them, nor the people who raise them. If they’re not grappling with impaired cognitive function in their adult years, they’ll be paralyzed by trillions of dollars in interest costs from the crippling debt of this unprecedented reconciliation bill. Meanwhile their mothers will be struggling to purchase basic staples like milk and orange juice as inflation continues to rise.

But perhaps that’s a story for another day. In the short term, policymakers should ask themselves the most important question of all. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world; do they really want that hand to be Uncle Sam’s?

Nora Kenney is deputy director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

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