Increasing Funding For Childcare Centres Is The Wrong Policy Solution For American Mothers
A few days back, I watched in full with rapt attention Senator Elizabeth Warren leading the Senate Banking Committee Hearing on “Child Care Since the Pandemic: Macroeconomic Impacts of Public Policy Measures.” I am a mother of two beautiful children, a development economist, and a tech entrepreneur who has lived and worked internationally. Even so, I recommend that this federal funding for childcare be diverted towards a different policy solution. Instead of subsidizing daycare centers, it is high time that an advanced nation such as the US institutes a year-long, paid maternity leave for working mothers.
We heard impressive testimonies from experts in the childcare industry, infant formula industry, and labor economics. They presented persuasive arguments and evidence to the committee to continue Federal funding for childcare, post-pandemic beyond its end-September cliff. I could not agree more that federal funding is needed to correct the market failure of childcare provision. However, the distribution of these funds must be in such a way that makes it easy for mothers to care for their babies in ways only they can and pursue careers.
More spaces are needed for children beyond one year of age. Increasing these spaces in daycare centers could be achieved organically by taking away the need to enroll children younger than one year. In the case of babies up to one year of age, let us not confuse “childcares” with “providing care” to these children. There are several ways to do the latter.
The implementation of a well-designed, nationwide 52-week paid maternity leave policy is not without its flaws. However, such policies have a precedent of creating considerable gains in human development in comparable advanced economies, such as Canada, and in Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Having given birth to my daughters and raised them during their early childhood years in three different cities in Canada, while simultaneously taking steps forward on my professional path, I am a direct beneficiary of such a policy.
Extending this funding to daycares, without instituting a longer maternity leave, will change the very nature of care babies end up receiving, primarily, because mothers returning to work sooner than they would ideally like to, often discontinue breastfeeding too soon too.
A few years back, when expecting my second daughter, I launched an app that would allow nursing mothers to discover nearby breastfeeding-friendly locations in their cities. In the process of studying the market, I learned that an ever-decreasing number of mothers around the world choose to breastfeed, even when they are physically able to.
Speaking to over 50 moms, I discovered that most of them started out with a sincere intention and effort to nurse their newborn. However, due to how cumbersome the process can be in those delicate first months, many gave up, often with pangs of guilt. Ubiquitous baby formula seemed like an expensive, yet attractive lifesaver. In the US, the problem is particularly acute because of some of the shortest paid maternity leave periods in the world. Many mothers give up breastfeeding too early because they are expected to and are able to return to work in only a few months post-partum. The daycare industry and the heavily marketed infant formula industry make this exit much more feasible, far too early on. This contributes to babies being weaned off way too early and put on baby formula, even when the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until the baby turns two.
The situation only gets more tricky with a host of psychological and logistical barriers to continuing to nurse babies after mum returns to work full-time. Speaking purely in economic terms, the “transaction costs” of continuing to nurse the baby once mom is back at work, are just too high.
Is this truly the best for American mothers and their babies? Could there be unintended consequences on social well-being, healthcare costs, and economic potential in the long run? The federal funding directed to increasing spaces in daycare facilities sounds to me like artificial life-support for a policy instrument that should have been a Plan B. As Dr. Greenspan explains in his famous book, “The Growth of the Mind”, the strongest factor influencing intelligence into a child’s adulthood, is how emotionally responsive and loving the care she received in her early years was. In a nutshell, babies need cuddles and optimal nutrition more than Montessori blocks!
The funding cliff is not the disaster it is deemed to be, but an opportunity to reframe motherhood in the US for the long term. Taking a leaf from Harvard President Claudine Gay’s inaugural address, difficult decisions must be made “now” so that America’s “later” has a fighting chance.
I emerged as a different, more conscious human being after being able to care for and nurse both my daughters for an extended period, something that only became possible because of the generous maternity leave policies in place, in Canada. Perhaps, if anything, only an external event such as this funding cliff will allow many working mothers in the US to rediscover the pleasure of giving childcare, protected by an adequately long, paid, maternity leave. Moreover, it will allow them to do so while also keeping their careers or unfolding new ones.
After all, public policy solutions that have lasting effects on society and move humanity in a meaningful new direction must come from a place deeper than the immediate needs of the economy and the interests of businesses in the country.