President Obama discussed the need for childcare for poor and working-class families in his annual State of the Union address on January 20.
“In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have – it's a must-have,” Obama said.
To facilitate this, the President proposed early childcare tax credits. Childcare can cost anywhere from about $4,500 in Tennessee to over $12,000 in Massachusetts per year. Along the same vein, the President's budget proposal for fiscal year 2016 includes funds for high-quality public pre-K for four year-olds.
Access to high-quality childcare and early childhood education is smart not only economically, but also from a public health standpoint.
Direct health benefits of early childhood interventions are clear. A report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) says that economically disadvantaged children are more likely to have access to healthy meals in early childhood education programs. That could reduce obesity and help feed malnourished youth. The IOM, NRC, and CDC strongly encourage childcare providers to make time for exercise as well.
NIEER notes that children who attend preschool are also more likely to be vaccinated than those who do not, since vaccination is a common requirement prior to entering school. As the current measles outbreak reveals, ensuring children receive recommended vaccinations is crucial to reduce outbreaks of preventable infectious conditions. NIEER also suggests these programs could help children at risk of violence, abuse, or neglect by reducing their exposure to harmful environments and through parenting interventions.
Indirect public health benefits associated with early childcare exist, too. Brain development occurs fastest in early childhood, so educational stimulus during those years can yield long-term cognitive and psychological benefits. The Future of Children, a think tank supported by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute, found that these programs benefit IQ and school achievement, encourage grade retention, and reduce preventable special education placement. Children also develop better social skills and heightened self-esteem.
Studies show that kids who attend preschool have advantages in life. They are more likely to graduate from high school, have stable families, and even make more money than children who do not. Likewise, they are less likely to struggle in school or get into legal trouble. Universal preschool could help develop a smarter, safer generation.
In his speech, the President harkened back to the Lanham Act of 1940, which provided affordable childcare to families. It sought to encourage women to get jobs while their husbands fought in the war. Although the Act yielded several of the health and economic benefits discussed above, it ended with WWII.
H.R. 3461, The Strong Start for America’s Children Act, was introduced in 2013. It would provide “access to preschool for 4-year-olds,” “early learning quality partnerships,” and high-quality childcare. However, the last action taken on the bill was in 2014. It was sent to committee, and has not been revisited.
Research shows that care and schooling for America's youngest citizens are beneficial to population health. The President’s recent statements are promising. Hopefully, progress will be made in laws and policies to support quality childcare and early learning.
This blog post was prepared by Alicia Corbett, J.D., Of Counsel, Gallagher & Kennedy, and Rose Meltzer, B.A. Candidate (2015) and Research Assistant, Public Health Law and Policy Program, Arizona State University.
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