The market is dictating how we raise our kids

by Kathryn Anne Edwards

Who wants the government to decide how they should raise their children? This is what opponents fear will happen if the state provides free child care: Families will be powerless, mothers will be forced to work, children will be removed from their homes.

What they fail to recognize is that the market already limits families’ freedom of choice more than the government ever could.

Suppose a mother with young children wants to work. Can she, if nobody else is willing or able to stay home with the kids? Only if the child-care market permits it. She’ll have to find a provider near her home or work, obtain a spot with that provider and find a way to afford the tuition. That’s not easy. Half of the country is classified as a “child care desert.” In many markets, the going rate can be $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Families fortunate enough to have children in care devote a fourth of their income to such expenses.

That’s not all. The power of markets over families starts the day new parents come home from the hospital. Can they stay home with their newborn? The labor market doesn’t think so: Only a fraction of workers has paid family leave, least of all the poorest.

Should they have another child? Today’s parents want as many kids as prior generations, but they’re having fewer nonetheless. In one survey, a staggering 64% cited the high cost of child care, while 39% cited inadequate paid leave and a further 38% cited a complete lack thereof. Lower-income parents are twice as likely to cite affordability issues as their more affluent counterparts.

How to reform such a cruel and unequal system? America needs a comprehensive zero-to-five policy to counter the market’s dysfunction.

From birth to four months, parents should have paid family leave. From four months to three years, they should have guaranteed access to affordable childcare in centers or from home-based providers. From three to five, free preschool. From then on, the existing K-12 system can kick in. At all levels, all families are covered, and all can choose whether to participate.

These investments would enhance family autonomy by providing guaranteed choices, rather than mercurial market privileges. They would also generate a positive return for the economy — through children’s health, mothers’ health, educational performance and labor supply.

If decisions such as how many children to have and how to raise them reflected what families prefer, rather than what markets permit, everyone would benefit.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant.