Policy Trade-offs: D.C. Child Care Edition

Last week The Washington Post reported that D.C. will be “among [the] first in [the] nation to require child-care workers to get college degrees.” This jumps on a bandwagon gathering pace in recent years: that child care should be seen as formal pre-school education rather than whatever parents decide is best for their children.

The logic behind the move is simple. Development gaps between poor and middle-class kids arise early, in part due to the failure for many children to experience an environment imbued with the knowledge of how best to deliver early learning. By setting the requirement for “lead teachers” to have an associate degree, child care directors to obtain a “bachelor’s degree” and for home carers to have the Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential, it is believed a better-educated workforce will raise the “quality” of care when children do experience it, in turn improving child outcomes.

Yet the push for professionalization and “improvements in quality” has led to child care becoming increasingly expensive in other countries, such as the U.K., with little evidence of the development objectives being achieved.

Regulatory restrictions such as these, which make becoming a child carer more expensive and time-consuming, will (other things equal) reduce the number of people opting for this type of job. Even though there is evidence it may raise some measure of the “quality of care”, this reduces the number of child care options available to parents overall and increases its price. Mercatus Research estimates requiring “lead teachers to have at least a high school diploma [note: a much lower standard] is associated with an increase in child care costs for infants of between 25 and 46 percent, or between $2,370 and $4,350 per year, per child.”

Given D.C. already has the highest cost of care in the country (the average annual cost of infant care in D.C. is $22,631, taking up close to 36% of a typical family’s income), reducing accessibility to care for low-income families seems a particularly dumb idea. It may reduce the payoff to returning to work for many individuals, or else result in substantial reductions in post-care disposable incomes, which could be used for other positive purposes.

The policy will likely ratchet up too. This is a classic example of how governments restrict the supply of a service, resulting later in demands to subsidize it given the high price. This has certainly been the case in the U.K., where regulations on qualifications and staff-child ratios have been buttressed with provision of so-called “free child care” for 3 and 4-year-olds. The result? There has been some evidence that the provision has a very small average beneficial impact to educational attainment at age 5. Yet this effect weakens by age 7 and has completely disappeared by age 11.

Even if it does improve the average quality of child care then, this type of policy will make child care more expensive and is likely to be completely overshadowed in the longer term by other factors which affect development (not least parenting). Given we do not force parents to take degrees in child development, or else put children in educational centers from birth, it is unclear what the robust explanation is for the government determining what constitutes quality, and restricting the availability of child care. Parents should be free to make judgments about their own wants and needs.