New data show just how badly the US lags in public spending on children

Teach them well, and let them lead the way
Teach them well, and let them lead the way
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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When it comes to public spending on early child development, the US has trailed most other developed nations for decades. But a new report (pdf) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts this discrepancy into stark relief: The US government spends just 0.3% of its GDP on child care and early childhood education, compared to the OECD member nation average of 0.7%.

The highest-spending places, Nordic countries like Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, put nearly 2% of their public spending toward early childhood services.

Spending in the US translates to $3,600 per child per year, versus the international average of $5,200. With families shouldering most of the burden, child care in America is a major expense for households that need it, costing anywhere from $5,400 to $24,000 annually, depending on the state.

The Biden administration’s bid for early childhood investment

Decades of studies on federal and state-level pre-K programs in the US have yielded mixed results about their effects over the span of a child’s life. But most have found that high-quality pre-K programs correlate with later academic success, and make it more likely that a child will graduate from high school. The benefits are especially pronounced for low-income children (pdf) who otherwise wouldn’t attend preschool.

States and cities have created programs to offer child care and pre-K for mostly low-income families. Now, the Biden administration is trying to make investments on a national scale that haven’t been seen in the US before. But the results have been mixed at best.

The American Rescue Plan of 2021 included $39 billion in emergency funding for child care support for essential workers. It also expanded the Child Tax Credit, providing six months of cash payments, no strings attached, to qualifying families with children. The Build Back Better plan, Biden’s signature social infrastructure and climate bill, included some $400  billion in new spending to provide universal pre-K for three and four-year-olds, as well as funding to make child care more affordable so that working families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care. But the bill failed in the Senate in December, and there is no expected date to vote on a new version of the bill. Meanwhile, the emergency child care funding and Child Tax Credit payments were both temporary measures that have now run out.