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Open Philanthropy should consider funding enhanced early childhood education initiatives, such as high-quality preschool and daycare.
There are many promising initiatives to improve lives around the world, but none are as wide-reaching as high-quality child development initiatives ranging from childcare to supporting the creation of enriching environments at home. This observation is based not only on my own academic work and my lived experience as a parent, but rather reflects the current understanding of the economics literature, and the global policy environment. For example, access to high-quality pre-primary education is specifically mentioned in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Target 4.2. According to Economics Nobel laureate James Heckman, early investments in children yield cognitive and socioemotional learning benefits to the children themselves. Benefits to these programs extend beyond the children, by also assisting their caregivers in pursuing income generating activities, and have shown to have longer-term benefits to society across a wide range of outcomes including adult poverty rates, health outcomes, crime rates, and overall economic activity. As Dr. Heckman writes “The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.” Despite the broad consensus on the importance of childcare, early childhood education, and improving child development more broadly, substantial gaps remain and many countries—including the US—leave the potential for transformative change unrealized. Therefore, this is an area that could benefit substantially from the focus, attention, and funding of Open Philanthropy.
The current state of childcare in low-income settings
While parents are responsible for child rearing, one key difference between high-income countries and low-income countries—as well as between high-income households and low-income households—is who watches the child during a typical workday. In high-income settings, children often attend daycare and preschool, or have nannies. By contrast, in low-income settings, children are typically cared for by their parents, and most commonly their mothers. Depending upon family structure, older children and other relatives such as grandmothers may also contribute to childcare duties. However, simply leaving children unattended may also be a typical strategy used when others are unavailable. One estimate indicates that over 35.5 million children under 5 are left without any adult supervision (Samman et al., 2016).
While full-time daycare facilities exist worldwide, they are not commonly found in low-income settings. To the extent that they exist, they are often unaffordable for lower-income households. To fix ideas, I will focus primarily on countries in East Africa, because I have the most experience and knowledge of the context. For example, in Uganda, Bjorvatn et al., (2022) find that full-time childcare is expensive for families, with the yearly cost approximately equal to four months worth of income for the average family. Potentially as a result of this high cost, less than 10 percent of children in Uganda, for example, aged 3-5 are enrolled in pre-primary education. Averages in other low-income settings are thought to be approximately 20 percent, compared to approximately 80 percent in high-income settings (Neuman and Powers, 2021). Infant care is even more scarce.
The lack of high-quality childcare likely represents a “missing market” as opposed to a preference to take care of children at home. Across the globe, mothers typically report that they would like additional childcare options (Moussie and Alfers 2018; Clark et al., 2021; Pungello et al., 2019). Providing high-quality childcare is expensive, and most high-income countries heavily subsidize and support such initiatives. Furthermore, fertility rates in low-income countries are high; as of 2021, the average woman in a low-income country, had 4.5 births. Thus, childcare would be a substantial, ongoing expense for most families in poor countries. While there may be cultural norms against hiring help for home production in some contexts, particularly by males, on average and in general, research consistently finds that women would like additional support for childcare. This corresponds with my observations from the field, and our recent (as yet unpublished) survey and focus group responses in Kenya in 2022.
Given that generally parents need to work to meet their consumption needs, the lack of affordable childcare options frequently translates into many children being watched by their parents while their parents are otherwise occupied or busy. This effect is highly gendered. Given the dearth of formal labor market opportunities for women, women often engage in agriculture or pursue self-employment, so let us take entrepreneurs as a benchmark. Recent work by myself, along with Solène Delecourt, has found that on average, 37% of female shop owners in Uganda have a young child or baby with them while they are working compared to 0% of men (Delecourt and Fitzpatrick 2021). Similar ongoing work by us and others in Kenya in 2022 has found approximately the same averages, with nearly 40% of shop owners taking are of a small child at their business while working.
The high provision of childcare at work is undesirable for at least two reasons. First, the presence of children at the shop is correlated with lower profits; we argue in Delecourt and Fitzpatrick (2021) that one reason for this correlation is because children make it difficult to engage in tasks related to running a business, such as obtaining new supplies and stocks. Thus, these businesses bring home less money and limit overall household income, and ultimate contribute to gender income disparities. Second, my observation from doing fieldwork is that shops are not enriching environments for children. While at their parents’ work, children are generally bored, and not intellectually or socially stimulated, particularly when one compares against the nurturing potential that a high-quality childcare facility could provide. In addition, shops may also be dusty or dirty; parental stress may also be higher from the demands of multi-tasking (i.e., working while caring for a small child) as well.
What an Investment in Childcare or Child Development Could Look Like For Open Philanthropy
- Expansion of Current Childcare Options: Depending upon the structure and degree of cooperation with the government, Open Philanthropy could either facilitate the creation or building of new public facilities. This approach would be similar to the growth in universal primary education and universal healthcare that has resulted in substantial school and health facility construction worldwide. However, quality would likely be a concern. For example, in Kenya, children-to-staff ratios are frequently over 30:1 (Devercelli et al., 2016).
Alternatively, Open Philanthropy could subsidize parents to allow their children to participate in regulated, private-sector childcare facilities. However, current availability of spots are likely limited, and absent a substantial and credible longer-term commitment it is unlikely that new private-sector childcare facilities will open in low-income settings. Thus, subsidizing enrollment would help a few children but there would be substantial children left unserved. Increasing demand could potentially have undesirable effects as well, such as increasing the price of care.
- Decentralized learning opportunities. However, there are other creative ways that the goals of enhanced investments in early children’s education could be provided. As Mr. Rogers used to say on his show, “Play is the work of childhood.” Providing toys or books to occupy children while their parents work—or even just during leisure time--- could potentially be a low-cost transformative approach to reorienting parenting towards activities that may be more likely to benefit children, while also allowing parents to do their daily chores or labor. Open Philanthropy could fund book distribution networks, similar to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, in which parents are able to sign up their children for a free book distribution program from birth through age 5. Distribution centers could be health centers, which are typically widely available (even in rural areas) and at which many children regularly attend for vaccinations, check-ups, or other health visits. Similarly, toy distribution networks are an untested way to boost cognitive engagement of young children. In poor countries, toys and books are difficult to find. In rural areas in particular, it would be challenging to even purchase toys. It is not that toys and books are unaffordable; it is that they are not even available for sale.
What The Likely Cost Would Be
Expansion of early childcare facilities would be expensive, with substantial variation across localities depending upon parental contribution expectations, whether or not a building would need to be constructed, local wage rates, and other factors. However, as a benchmark, a World Bank estimate that the annual costs of sending a child to preschool in Kenya, for example, range from $54/child to $117/child (Devercelli et al., 2016). There are approximately 3 million children aged 3-5 in Kenya. Taking the rounded midpoint of the cost estimates, $86/year, the back-of-the-envelope calculation is $256,000,000 for just one country. While that number is large, up to have of expenses are typically covered by governments; we can assume that parents collectively can pay another 25%. Thus, a rough estimate is that for $64,000,000 one could fund pre-school for all Kenyan children. The impacts from the literature suggest that substantial investment would pay off in terms of social benefits many times over in a relatively short time frame, approximately 10 years. Moreover, even if providing full-day early childhood education was not feasible, there may be other cheaper and less comprehensive, but also potentially transformative options such as book distribution, toy distribution, or part-time programs that would yield benefit as well.
What The Likely Impact Would Be
There is a large economics literature on the impact of early childhood education in the US, and a growing literature on the impacts in other countries. As James Heckman has made it his post-Nobel project to advocate for child development initiatives, there is a regularly updated, comprehensive website that contains summaries, pros and cons, and more available here. What follows in this document is not a comprehensive list of all of this literature, but rather can highlight key themes about what would happen if childcare access was expanded:
- Labor supply increases, particularly for mothers, leading to increases in household income- A study in India found that employer-provided childcare increased the odds that a mother was at work by 1.7 times the rate prior to the introduction of the childcare (Ranganathan and Pedulla 2018). A study that subsidized childcare in Uganda led to a 44% increase in hours worked by mothers with significant increases in household income and business profits (Bjorvatn et al., 2022). Similar increases have been observed in the context of US history (Cascio 2006). However, effects may not be observed for mothers unless younger children such as infants are also covered (Fitzpatrick 2010; Fitzpatrick 2012).
- Improved cognitive and socio-emotional skills of children- A study that subsidized childcare in Uganda led to an increase in child cognitive development of 0.16 standard deviations (Bjorvatn et al., 2022). This effect is large, and in particular larger than learning increases from more intensive school-based interventions to improve learning in higher grades. Other similar estimates have been found in the US (see, for example, Algan et al., 2022).
- Long-term improvements in other social goods, such as reduced crime and improved health outcomes-Early childhood education programs in the US have been shown to also have impacts on a wide-range of longer-term outcomes such as lowering crime,and the likelihood of unemployment while increasing the likelihood of having a bank account, voting, and completing high school (Heckman and Karapakula., 2019; Cohodes et al., 2021; Gray-Lobe et al., 2021; Bartik et al., 2022). One hypothesized mechanism for these effects is that early childhood programs are particularly effective at teaching “soft skills”, and before age 5 is also the period most amenable for teaching such skills. Furthermore, because low-income students are more likely to benefit, improving access to these programs overall reduces inequality (Johnson et al., 2019). While most of the cost-benefit analysis is done through the lens of governments funding these activities, the short-term costs are typically paid-for over the longer-term through increased tax revenues.
- Economic activity increases through the fiscal stimulus- Creating new childcare facilities would likely generate an increased demand for paid caregivers. As preschool teachers or infant caregivers are typically women, this would result in improved labor market prospects for women where currently opportunities are scant. Women’s wages would increase as there would be pressure among other female dominated-occupations to shift into paid care work. There would likely be smaller increases in employment of women as cooks and cleaners.
There is a much smaller literature on the impact of more decentralized learning approaches. Kearney and Levine (2019) find that the roll-out of Sesame Street in the 1960s and 1970s improved educational outcomes for children, particularly for boys. I am not aware of any high-quality study that evaluates programs such as the Imagination Library or toy distribution programs. However, non-random studies suggest that it is beneficial for children at improving readiness for kindergarten, as well as parental engagement (Ridzi et al., 2014; Ridzi et al., 2016; Samiei et al., 2015). If Open Philanthropy was interested in estimating the impact of a book distribution program through a randomized intervention, I would be available for such an activity.
The Personal Connection
I myself am the parent of three small children (5; 2; 5 months). During the pandemic, like many of us, I struggled with trying to continue to work while childcare facilities were shut down. I noticed how the isolation of the pandemic contrasted sharply to the enriching environments that my children had enjoyed at daycare in terms of socio-emotional learning, learning and playing with peers, arts and crafts, and also the simple consolation that children get from having a regular schedule each day. Similar to many mothers abroad, I have figured out how to feed, clothe, and love my children. However, despite being an educator myself, I have not received training and have no particular expertise in early childhood education. It is difficult to keep children engaged, occupied, and contribute to their intellectual development when one has chores and work to do. Despite my ability to google activities, I recognize that early childhood education requires training, assistance, and support. I recognize that while many parents could potentially develop the skill set necessary, there may be substantial benefits to instead training paid educators and allowing children from all income backgrounds to attend an early learning facility.
Due to continued inadequate availability of childcare for my 2 and 5 month old, including a ten-day quarantine period due to COVID last week, I was unable to devote as much time as I would have liked to this proposal. However, I am happy to continue the conversation if this is of interest to you. My goal here is to help make the world a better place, and I think educating our children has substantial benefits to both children and parents.
Algan, Yann, et al. "The Impact of Childhood Social Skills and Self-Control Training on Economic and Noneconomic Outcomes: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment Using Administrative Data." American Economic Review 112.8 (2022): 2553-79.
Bartik, Timothy J. "The Long-Run Effects of High-Quality Pre-K: What Does the Research Show?." (2022).
Bjorvatn, Kjetil, et al. "Childcare, labor supply, and business development: Experimental evidence from Uganda." (2022). Mimeo.
Cascio, Elizabeth U. "Public preschool and maternal labor supply: evidence from the introduction of kindergartens into American public schools." (2006).
Cohodes, Sarah R. and James J. Feigenbaum. “Why Does Education Increase Voting? Evidence from Boston’s Charter Schools.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 29308, 2021.
Clark, Shelley, et al. "Balancing paid work and child care in a slum of Nairobi, Kenya: the case for centre-based child care." Journal of Family Studies 27.1 (2021): 93-111.
Delecourt, Solène, and Anne Fitzpatrick. "Childcare matters: Female business owners and the baby-profit gap." Management Science 67.7 (2021): 4455-4474.
Devercelli, Amanda Epstein, and Rebecca Kraft Sayre. Scaling up preschool in Kenya: costs, constraints, and opportunities. No. 111215. The World Bank, 2016.
Fitzpatrick, Maria Donovan. "Preschoolers enrolled and mothers at work? The effects of universal prekindergarten." Journal of Labor Economics 28.1 (2010): 51-85.
Fitzpatrick, Maria Donovan. "Revising our thinking about the relationship between maternal labor supply and preschool." Journal of Human Resources 47.3 (2012): 583-612.
Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag A. Pathak, and Christopher R. Walters. The long-term effects of universal preschool in Boston. No. w28756. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021.
Heckman, J J and G Karapakula (2019b), “Intergenerational and intragenerational externalities of the Perry Preschool Program”, NBER Working Paper 25889.
Hillis, Susan D., et al. "Global minimum estimates of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers: a modelling study." The Lancet 398.10298 (2021): 391-402.
Johnson, Rucker C., and C. Kirabo Jackson. "Reducing inequality through dynamic complementarity: Evidence from Head Start and public school spending." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 11.4 (2019): 310-49.
Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. 2019. "Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from Sesame Street." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 11 (1): 318-50.
Moussié, Rachel, and Laura Alfers. "Women informal workers demand child care: Shifting narratives on women’s economic empowerment in Africa." Agenda 32.1 (2018): 119-131.
Neuman, Michelle J., and Shawn Powers. "Political prioritization of early childhood education in low-and middle-income countries." International Journal of Educational Development 86 (2021): 102458.
Ridzi, Frank, Monica R. Sylvia, and Sunita Singh. "The imagination library program: Increasing parental reading through book distribution." Reading Psychology 35.6 (2014): 548-576.
Ridzi, Frank, et al. "The imagination library program and kindergarten readiness: Evaluating the impact of monthly book distribution." Journal of Applied Social Science 11.1 (2017): 11-24.
Samiei, Shahin, et al. "Examining the association between the Imagination Library early childhood literacy program and kindergarten readiness." Reading Psychology 37.4 (2016): 601-626.
Samman, Emma, et al. "Women’s work." Mothers, children and the global childcare crisis. Report (2016).
Pungello, Elizabeth Puhn, and Beth Kurtz-Costes. "Why and how working women choose child care: A review with a focus on infancy." Developmental review 19.1 (1999): 31-96.
United Nations. "Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development." New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015)
“By 2030 all nations will provide access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that all girls and boys are well prepared when they enter primary education” (United Nations, 2015, p. 19)
These issues of childcare have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Hillis et al., (2021) estimate that worldwide nearly 1.1 million children lost a primary caregiver, and 1.5 million children lost either a primary or secondary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, high maternal mortality rates and relatively low life expectancies for older adults exacerbate the challenges of relying upon family members for childcare responsibilities.