Do you know that we are one of the first countries that provided universal childcare? But we took a step back when other countries are moving forward, and now we are doing everything we can just to keep up.
It all started in World War II when men were enlisted to go to war, and women were called to take on manufacturing jobs. The government recognized that mothers would not leave their children for work. This led to the establishment of publicly-funded daycare centers.
Unfortunately, after World War II, daycare funding stops. While countries started to enhance universal childcare during that time, we pulled out. Government funding ceased in 1946. In 1971, we were so close to having a universal childcare system, but unfortunately, it was vetoed. And now here we are.
Surprisingly, the US is one of the wealthiest countries that does not have universal childcare. Additionally, the happiest countries in the world are also the countries with universal childcare policies in place.
What does an effective childcare system look like? Northern European countries, those ranked the happiest countries in the world, prioritize families, and with this, all policies are geared towards taking care of families. This means policies such as maternity/paternity benefits, childcare, and healthcare, are governed, monitored, and heavily funded.
These countries also recognize that early infant and child care is one of the fundamental building blocks of a prosperous economy. According to countless research, investment in childcare will reap high returns in the form of decreased poverty rate, a more productive population, better social outcomes, and better communities, to name a few. In addition, a parent who can send their kid to daycare can search for gainful employment and improve their economic conditions or further improve their career prospects.
Looking at different family policies, countries with successful child care systems have the following in place:
Longer paid parental leave, and leave to take care of your children
These governments recognize that parents need to take care of their children. As a result, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and other Nordic countries provide higher, and longer paid maternity and paternity leave for their citizens. In Sweden, for example, parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave. In Denmark, parents are allowed 52 weeks of paid leave with 32 weeks to be shared by both parents, while in Finland, each parent gets 164 days each, with varying payout rates.
Even Asian countries are providing paid parental benefits. Singapore gives paid maternity and paternity leaves. South Korea has some form of paid parental leave but not as substantial as their nordic country counterparts. Even the Philippines has some sort of paid maternity leave, but of course not as substantial as other countries.
In addition, parents in Sweden are entitled to temporary parental benefits of a maximum of 120 days to take care of a sick child or children (“vård av barn” or VAB) under 12.
Meanwhile, the US government gives mothers 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. It will be the sole discretion of your employer to provide compensation for those 12 weeks.
Daycare and Childcare Availability and Quality
When a child reaches a certain age and becomes eligible for childcare, parents don’t need to worry about daycare and childcare availability. For example, in Denmark and Sweden, it is government policy that all children have access to daycare centers. That means the government ensures enough daycare and childcare centers to accommodate children.
In Denmark, the majority of all daycare facilities are municipal daycare; the rest are independent daycares that are “governed by a board and operated on the basis of a charter or statues” (The Ministry of Social Affairs, 2000).
To have appropriate control, daycare and childcare centers are mostly publicly-owned, with 80% of children attending public daycare and childcare centers. The rest either go to publicly-controlled establishments or childminders where the local government oversees programs.
In Singapore, they are creating massive daycare center hubs for children. They are strategically placed near public housing (where 80% of the population lives), so parents can conveniently drop off and pick up their kids.
In addition to the adequacy of childcare facilities, the quality of childcare is also an essential part of the framework. The quality of childcare is the same regardless of income level or bracket. This is the US government’s goal, of course, but the reality is cities and communities with low-income families get poor quality childcare.
Cost of Childcare
The cost of daycare is one of the primary reasons parents consider daycare services. In the US, the cost of daycare can go anywhere from 8-15% of the family income, even higher for single parents. On the other hand, families in Northern Europe can avail daycare for little to no cost, depending on the family’s income bracket.
In France, where the child care system is also considered of high quality, they have creches where a family pays according to their salary bracket. Other countries receive financial subsidies and support from the government to cover the cost of childcare.
The US has similar programs (tax deduction and welfare provisions) but they are heavily stigmatized and further increase the rate of inequality between high and middle-income families and low-income families.
How can a country sustain a high-quality universal childcare system, maintain a healthy child-to-teacher ratio, pay their teachers well, and have enough daycare and childcare system while maintaining very low to no-cost childcare? The answer lies in public funding. To the countries with better childcare systems, that means higher taxes.
Daycare and childcare establishments are labor-intensive and expensive, and these governments recognize that. If the cost of operating and managing is not subsidized, the whole childcare system will collapse. In these countries, the government shoulders most of the cost, unlike in the US, where the bulk of the cost is shouldered by the parents and the institutions.
Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have higher tax rates than the US. Taxes lie, on average, about 45%, whereas the average is 37% in the US. However, citizens are not complaining because they get their taxes worth in affordable social services. Simply put, they are well taken care of
So while there is a trade-off between taxes and benefits, these people get more from their taxes than anyone.
The question is, is the US government ready to step up? Are we as citizens ok with increasing taxes to cover childcare? It is too early to tell. With the pandemic and downturn in the economy, raising taxes may be welcomed with hatred and discontent. Some may want it, while others won’t.
One thing is for sure when a government makes childcare a priority, when the government sees child care not as welfare but part of education, everything follows. The good news is that the US government is stepping up. The Build Back Better initiative will be the most transformative childcare policy since World War II. I personally believe once this is implemented, other universal policies will follow.
While we have yet to see how the initiative will turn out, it is tremendous progress nonetheless, not only for childcare but also for healthcare. We are getting there and it is up to us, our collective effort, to make this a reality.