This week, Bernie Sanders proposed a nationwide free childcare program. As a parent, I fully support the idea—and my family wouldn’t even benefit from it. And I’m hardly alone in my support. Free childcare is a popular idea. A 2019 YouGov poll commissioned by the think tank the People’s Policy Project found that 57 percent of Americans overall support and that a commanding 82 percent of Democrats back it.
Parents in Washington D.C., Massachusetts and New York State pay between $24,000 and $35,000 a year on average for child care. It’s common in those states for families to pay a quarter of their total income for child care. And it’s worse for lower income families, who are paying 35 percent of their income on child care.
And even in Mississippi, the cheapest state for childcare, parents are paying almost $8,000 every year for child care.
Obviously, alleviating that financial burden would help families with young children. But free child care wouldn’t benefit those families alone. The money families save would spur a rush of consumer spending that would have wide benefits to the general economy.
Without the burden of childcare costs, young families could afford major purchases like cars and housing, boosting America’s construction and manufacturing. Families wouldn’t have to scale back on entertainment, so they’d spend more on media subscriptions, books, movies, pumping money into our faltering creative sector. They’d be more likely to spend on gym memberships, restaurants, home improvement projects and clothes, all of which would benefit small businesses.
According to a 2019 PPP analysis, universal child care would be affordable, assuming that we’re willing to defray costs by taking a small slice out of our military budget. PPP estimates universal child care would cost between 0.5 and 0.9 percent of America’s gross domestic product.
The United States’ military budget currently costs 3.4% of gdp. If the US fully paid for universal child care through cuts to the military, our military budget would still dwarf the rest of the world’s and we’d still exceed our NATO commitment to spend 2% of gdp on the military.
And it’s high time to cut back on military spending. America’s military industrial complex has had a deleterious influence on our economy for its long, tawdry existence. In exchange for offering a handful of jobs, local and state governments regularly offer munitions manufacturers tax breaks, land for their factory and sometimes the cost of building and equipping the factory itself at taxpayers’ expense. With military manufacturing as automated as manufacturing in general, the jobs are increasingly scarce for working class people. But for beltway, elites, the military industrial complex is a world of opaque multibillion-dollar budgets lacking both transparency and accountability. And with military manufacturing heavily reliant on China for materials, those jobs could evaporate instantly given the right global pandemic or trade war action.
And in contrast to military spending, early learning programs have a proven return on investment. Evidence shows that children who take part in high quality early childhood education efforts are less likely to become teenage parents, commit crimes or depend on welfare. It’s estimated that every $1 spent on early childhood creates $17 worth of value to society.