While many advocates point to the benefits universal pre-kindergarten provides young children, these programs may also help mothers — both low- and high-income women — return to the workforce.
A study released late last year found that free pre-k significantly increased the labor supply for women with incomes below 200% of the poverty line and those earning 400% above the poverty line. That echoes an earlier 2018 study that showed universal pre-k materially increased the labor force participation rate for poorer and more affluent mothers.
The studies help bolster the economic case for many recent local and state efforts to introduce or expand universal pre-k while federal funding for the childhood programs remains on the political backburner on Capitol Hill.
“For the pennies we taxpayers spend on universal pre-k, we get dollars in return,” said Rasheed Malik, one of the 2018 study’s authors and the Center for American Progress director of early childhood policy. “Childcare workers do the work that enables all others to work. Decades of research has shown that the care and education that children receive is crucial to the health of our society, to families, and our broader economy.”
Affordable child care can be hard to come by. A recent Axios study found that the average babysitter fee is $20.57 an hour in 2021, while a Child Care Aware of America study found that the average child care cost per year was about $10,000. With wages not keeping up with inflation, some mothers struggle and quit their jobs as a result.
One way to help women come back to the workforce is offering affordable child care. But the strategy doesn’t bring back all mothers at the same rate.
A Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City study found that women’s workforce participation increased by 2.3% on average when their children were in universal pre-K programs. The researchers drew on monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey (CPS) data between 2010-2019 that followed 23,000 mothers of children ages 2-5 for 16 months. The study also looked at free preschool programs offered in 44 states and Washington, D.C.
Low-income mothers earning below 200% of the federal poverty level saw the biggest benefits, with their workforce participation rate increasing by 4.9%. The increased workforce participation among low-income mothers was also possibly because of the work requirement for those mothers to receive government assistance like SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).
The rates for college-educated mothers and those with incomes above 400% of the poverty level rose 4.2% and 3.5%, respectively.
“Findings from the paper indicate that universal pre-K will help those mothers who want to work to get back to the labor force. It can eventually improve household finances and wellbeing,” one of the Fed study’s authors, Elias Ilin, told Yahoo Money. “For the economy as a whole, it can help to increase the size of the labor force - which is especially important right now, given the severe labor shortage.”
Similarly, a 2018 study from the Center for American Progress found that universal pre-K programs benefit the employment of low- and high-income mothers the most.
Overall, two-year, free full-day pre-k programs from 2009-2017 increased maternal workforce participation by 12 percentage points, with the rate for low-income mothers increasing from 39.9% to 55.1% — or more than 15 percentage points.
The participation rate of higher-income mothers rose from 74.8% to 88.2% — a gain of more than 13 percentage points — and “at rates comparable to their male counterparts,” according to the study.
The type of work these mothers returned to was not the same, however.
“High-income working mothers went back to high-income work. Low-income working mothers wanted full-time work, but took part-time jobs to give them more flexibility in when to pick up their kids from school,” said Malik.
Future of universal pre-k
Universal pre-k was one of the many provisions included in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework that so far remains indefinitely on hold for a lack of support from all Democratic senators.
However, the childhood program itself is popular among most Democrats, even those opposed to other parts of Build Back Better, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
“I expect universal pre-k to expand,” said Ilin. “But it depends on political factors.”
“I applaud companies for offering childcare to employees, but the working mothers that are helped are usually lawyers and in other high-income jobs,” Malik said, “leaving a lot of people out.”
Ella Vincent is the personal finance reporter for Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @bookgirlchicago.