Researchers cite child harm in affordable day care objection
The notion that the government should make day care more affordable has gained bipartisan traction in this election cycle, but studies suggest that extensive use of commercial day care facilities — especially for children younger than 3 — can do more harm than good in the long term.
What’s more, surveys indicate that most Americans are skeptical about outsourcing care for their children.
“Parents kind of instinctively know that especially little kids need time and attention,” said former domestic policy analyst Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.
With both of the major parties’ presidential nominees promising to help working families, affordable commercial child care has become an issue to attract voters.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said she would cap day care expenses at 10 percent of a family’s income and increase wages for industry workers to prevent high turnover rates. Republican nominee Donald Trump has introduced a plan to make child care expenses taxdeductible, and his aides have expressed interest in extending tax benefits to stayat-home parents.
But researchers in child development and public policy question the wisdom of making commercial day care more affordable.
“I think it would be terrible for our kids,” said Steven Rhoads, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Studies indicate that there are real risk factors — anxiety, aggression, even when they get older, criminal behavior. It’s not a close call in most of these studies.”
Mr. Rhoads is the author of “Taking Sex Differences Seriously,” which examines the policy implications of biological differences between the sexes.
He recommends policies that allow families with children to keep more of what they earn. “It would be better to find ways to support families with young children more generally,” he said.
Ms. Lukas said any child care plan should allow parents to make whatever decision is right for them.
“We all want to make life easier on working parents, but I worry when you start just subsidizing child care,” she said. “It’s not really fair to families that are making different choices when it comes to child care, whether that’s working parents who try to work different hours so they can be home with kids or who make a real financial sacrifice so that they can keep a parent at home.”
Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research studied the effects of an affordable child care initiative in Quebec. By the year 2000, a $5-per-day day care policy had been implemented for all children younger than 5. The study, published in 2005, found that commercial day care was associated with health and behavioral problems in children.
The health problems were neither surprising nor new. Infants frequently put their hands into their mouths and share toys, and day care centers have long been associated with higher rates of infection. However, the study found that children in day care also exhibited higher rates of physical aggression and emotional anxiety.
A follow-up study last year found that the behavioral effects persisted into adolescence. Teens exposed to the Quebec day care program exhibited more emotional and behavioral problems, including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.
In addition, adolescent Quebecois had higher rates of crime compared with the general teenage population in Canada, and those exposed to day care programs had higher crime rates on average at every age than their peers.
One explanation for the findings is that children in day care produce elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to higher rates of fear and anxiety.
A 2006 meta-analysis in Early Childhood Research Quarterly found that “the effect of day care attendance on cortisol excretion was especially noticeable in children younger than 36 months.”
“We speculate that children in center day care show elevated cortisol levels because of their stressful interactions in a group setting,” the study said.
A 2010 study conducted by University of Minnesota researchers noted that, during stages of rapid brain development in infancy, “contact with parents prevents elevations in cortisol, and this has been interpreted as nature’s way of protecting this developing brain from the potentially deleterious effects of this steroid.”
Adults with children in day care exhibited “more hostile, less consistent parenting” and “worse adult mental health and relationship satisfaction,” the 2005 Quebec study found.