Bryan Caplan  

Behavioral Geneticists vs. Policy Implications: The Case of Child Care

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Sandra Scarr's "Why Child Care Has Little Impact on Children's Development" (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1997) is an impressive literature survey.  Postcard version:
Within a broad range of safe environments, quality variations in child care have only small and temporary effects on most children's development.  With a few exceptions that can be explained by correlations between family and child-care characteristics, studies both in the United States and elsewhere fail to find any long-term effects.
In the final paragraph of the article, however, she takes behavioral geneticists' standard approach to policy analysis.  She doesn't even consider the possibility that marginal reductions in child care "investments" might be a good idea:
On the one hand, these findings should be reassuring to worried parents, who have been led to fear for their children's development in child-care settings.  On the other hand, the results are not a license to ignore children's interests in spending their days in emotionally supportive and intellectually stimulating programs.  Just as adults suffer in socially unsupportive, boring work environments, even though their family lives may be satisfying, children with devoted parents are probably less happy in poor preschool programs.  As a society, we can afford to provide interesting, good-quality care for all of our children.
I realize that "good-quality care for all our children" is a popular, feel-good proposal.  Behavioral geneticists will make their lives more difficult if they criticize it.  Yet intellectual integrity demands it.  Key points that people need to hear even if they'd rather not:

1. We don't face a binary choice between boring day care that makes kids miserable and stimulating day care that makes kids joyful.  There's a continuous trade-off between cost and quality.

2. Adults accept "socially unsupportive, boring work environments" all the time.  Why?  Because there's a trade-off between fun and money.  Why should parents ignore this trade-off when they choose their children's day care?

3.  If the rationale for our current behavior was (consumption + investment) benefits, and the investment benefits turn out to be less than we thought, common sense tells us to spend less.  If the investment benefits turn out to be non-existent, common sense tells us to spend a lot less.

4. Once we accept that the point of child care is entertainment, we can probably find much cheaper ways to supply it.  High-quality investment in children might require people with Ph.D.s in education and child psychology.  That's expensive.  High-quality entertainment for children, in contrast, probably only requires some high-energy kids in high school or college.  That's cheap.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Floccina writes:

I was working with a few low income single mothers when and the subject of Government funded day care came up and so I asked each one would they rather have free day care or $100/week, $50/week, $40/week, $30/week, $20/week. Most had arrangements with family or friends and so did not valued free daycare. Most would rather have an extra $20.00 or $30 a week than free daycare.

Not a scientific survey but a data point.

Granite26 writes:

I'm guessing that this sort of thing has controlled for income level of the parents and natural intelligence of the kids?

I'm thinking here that if your kid is going to end up flipping burgers or pushing a pencil at the office, your early investments won't pay-off that much.

On the other hand, a naturally inquisitive child with a higher ceiling and higher education opportunities (the parents can afford the best schools) may benefit from parental high investment. IIRC, IQ differences by investment fade away by the early twenties, but if that makes the difference between an Ivy League school and a state school, I have trouble believing that wouldn't matter.

Additionally, there are at least a few career paths that are only open to young adolescents (a time at which parental investment payoffs are still present)

Finally, it may be a simple investment decision. Junior is going to college, but a small(er) investment now in higher quality child care may reduce (through scholarships) the cost the parents have to pay in 15 years.

muirgeo writes:

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports the value of early childhood education programs such as Head Start.

At least for this program the cost seem to be paid back several times over. This may be different from the general topic of Day Care but at least this subset pertinent to early child development has shown some significant benefits in relation to cost.

Kyle writes:

So, Bryan....
Are you going to extend that line of thought into schooling as well, with your commitment to the signalling (over learning) model of education? It's not much of a stretch to say the same thing for K-6/K-8?

Muirgeo...
I had thought that the studies on head start were basically the same as all the studies on Early Childhood Education, be it competent Montessori, Head Start, or Direct Instruction: all benefits (vs. control group) vanish 2-3 years after the students transition to other approaches (Kindergarden, 3rd grade, whatever). Harlem Children's Zone doesn't really end until High School graduation, so I'm uncertain of its durability. And the Indian Schools in California are also through-high-school programs and I'm not familiar with the follow-ups there.

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