Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

“The labor is going to be long and difficult, but this baby is on its way in most affluent countries.” Nancy Folbre wrote last month in a New York Times blog entry.

What baby? Preschool: the public policy bundle of joy that promises to give children a strong educational start, and to provide society with thriving students who can, when they grow, join the nation’s workforce.

Unfortunately, delivering this baby will take time, explains Folbre, a professor emerita of economics at the University of Amherst.

In a 2011 Times blog entry, Folbre notes the many public programs – including preschool — that have been cut on state and federal budget chopping blocks.

Some politicians don’t support preschool, and others who do have not pushed hard enough for funding.

In her recent post she writes, “On both the federal and state level, efforts to cut government spending have taken a big bite out of public child care programs. This coming year, 57,000 children will lose access to Head Start as a result of sequestration.”

In addition, there are clashing public opinions. “The bigger issue is who will pay the costs and who will enjoy the benefits [of preschool],” Folbre writes. “Loyalties based on age, race and ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and class have a fragmenting effect. Mothers are more affected than fathers, who account for a smaller share of the overall time and money devoted to children. Self-interest also comes into play. Some nonparents feel they shouldn’t be required to help subsidize parents.”

It is nations, Folbre says, that must think and act more broadly, making investments that will benefit society for generations to come.

Other countries are pushing ahead, leaving the United States behind. As Folbre notes, “Japan and Germany, two countries long considered laggards in the child care area, are now increasing their spending.”

Unfortunately, as Folbre notes, “the United States ranks far below most members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (including Japan and Germany) in both public expenditure on child care services as a percentage of gross domestic product and child care enrollment among those under age six.”

There are, however, amidst the economic stress and uncertainty, bright spots of progress.

President Obama’s preschool proposal hasn’t won Congress over, but it has made national headlines, fueling the public debate about the importance of high-quality early education and care programs.

Cities are states are also developing new preschool programs.

At the start of the school year, “San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro greeted 4-year-olds taking part in a new pre-K program aimed at low-income families, financed by a 1/8-cent increase in the local sales tax,” Folbre writes.

She adds, “In New York City, the Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has called for an increase in the city’s tax rate on income over $500,000 (to 4.4 percent from the current 3.87 percent) to raise money for pre-K and after-school programs.”

According to a Times article, “Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, said that he was looking to make a lasting change to the city’s educational and economic ladder, and that he believed the idea had broad public support. ‘This is a prerequisite today to the kind of education that can succeed in the modern economy.’”

In the short term, there are indeed obstacles to delivering on the promise of preschool. But as Folbre writes, “In the long run, such local conceptions could lead up to a big national delivery.”