There's a lot of talk these days about tax cuts and government spending. While I'm no expert on how much we should spend, I do know that how we spend the money we have makes a big influence to children's developmental outcomes. There is a huge difference between universal programs that provide everyone, rich or poor, a tax benefit and those that are meant to help the most vulnerable families do what they can't do for themselves (think the families portrayed in The Wire in Baltimore, and you'll know what I mean).
Here's an example. In Canada, a previous government proposed to spend five billion dollars creating thousands of subsidized daycare spaces for families without the means to pay fair market value for good quality childcare. The idea was that the working poor and parents on social assistance would be given a service that would help their children become properly prepared for elementary school. Parents would also be able to work and hopefully break the cycle of poverty.
A change of government and the plan was shelved in favour of an alternative approach. Every family would be given $100/month per child below the age of 6 to offset expenses. It was reasoned that this way, families that chose to have a parent stay at home and not take salaried work would have extra funds to support their child rearing.
The two approaches will not produce equally good results. Of course, they reflect the different ideologies of two different governments, one more left leaning, the other more right. More than these political differences, the two different approaches to childcare reveal a serious misunderstanding of what we can do as a society to prevent threats to children's psychosocial development and the long-term social and financial consequences that come from a poor start in life.
Providing the most vulnerable children (and their families) with access to quality daycare is an intervention that promotes resilience. It is perfectly tailored to the needs of families facing significant, chronic disadvantage that often accompany poverty, immigration, discrimination, and mental health and learning challenges. Providing the young children of these families with accessible quality childcare ensures that children with learning and other cognitive delays, behavioural problems, and those who are being exposed to violence and neglect, are all identified early by professionals with the skills to intervene. Quality daycare also ensures that children's nutritional needs are better met and their literacy and numeracy skills are honed so that they are school ready.
But families that are not so badly disadvantaged don't need the same type of help. Most have their children in lots of activities and are ensuring their children develop psychologically and physically. They don't need government funded benefits to do what they are already capable of doing themselves. Besides, there is no evidence anywhere that providing a token bit of funding to middle class families improves the long-term developmental outcomes of their children. No evidence whatsoever. It is a complete waste of money that does nothing to improve the overall safety, productivity, and civility of our population.
But there is abundant evidence that providing quality daycare to families with more vulnerable children does change these children's trajectories through life. If we look at the work of Jane Beach, Martha Friendly, Doug Willms, Alan Sroufe, or Robert Sampson who are all concerned with vulnerable children and their later outcomes, we see clearly that a good start is very important to a life that is both problem free and fully able.
It is also a cost effective investment. Jails cost more than daycares. And mental health interventions for children prevent the long-term cost of life-long disability that follows the trauma of child abuse, parent stress, addictions and neglect.
Research shows that the factors that build resilience are not the same as those that build strengths. For families with few resources, a small investment in quality daycare can dramatically change their child's pathway through life and reduce dependency on the multiple services they're likely to need later (like mental health counselling, child welfare, juvenile justice, addictions treatment, special educational supports, public housing, health care, etc.). Those families that are under far less stress can also benefit from quality childcare, but truthfully, the difference it will make to their children will be far less dramatic because families with financial means already have the capacity to do things for their children that help them grow up well.
In the debate over tax dollars and expenditures, and which programs benefit children most, we need to keep in mind the difference between a neo-liberal view of the poor as responsible for themselves, and a universalist view that argues that the middle class are just as worthy of government help as the poorest of the poor. Both points of view fail as a foundation for responsible family policy. Wasting money on families that have the means to help themselves is simply not going to get government money to where it can make a difference, keep vulnerable children safe, nor help shrink the need for government services a generation from now.