Just a few decades ago, it was rare for young children to attend a preschool of any kind. The majority of children of this age were cared for in their homes by their parents, usually their mothers. Fast forward to today, and a majority of young children attend some kind of preschool.
Certainly, many preschools in the contemporary United States are private, but cities like New York and states like Oklahoma have made tuition-free public preschool universally available to all families. The United States still invests less in preschools than most other advanced democracies. However, as public preschool programs have been rolled out in state after state, US investment in preschool is now more similar to what we see in other countries than is investment in childcare for younger children.
The important role of these investments in public preschool for inequalities in children’s learning and development is well-documented. In a recent study, I set out to better understand the implications of the rise in children’s preschool attendance for the work lives of their parents, focusing on the very simple outcome of whether parents with children of this age participate in the labor market.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the data I use show that most fathers work regardless of whether their children attend preschool. That’s because mothers are still the primary caregivers of young children in most families.
My study therefore looked in more detail at how children’s preschool attendance, and public preschool attendance in particular, affects mothers’ employment. I was especially interested in whether children’s public preschool attendance leads to different employment decisions for different families.
Existing research had shown us that when public preschools are rolled out, mothers with a lower level of education (and therefore lower earnings potential) tend to change their work patterns more than mothers with a higher level of education. This is because highly educated working mothers have already been able to pay for private care arrangements for their children and are less affected by whether public preschools are available. I also saw this pattern in my study.
I also compared mothers who were born in the United States to mothers who had immigrated to the United States from elsewhere. To begin with, immigrant mothers are less likely than US-born mothers to work when children are not enrolled in preschool and less likely to enroll their children in preschool. But in addition to this, I found that immigrant mothers were less likely than other mothers to increase their labor force participation when their children enrolled in preschool.
The pattern I observed for immigrant mothers was not due to race or ethnicity. For instance, US-born Mexican American mothers increased their labor force participation when their children enrolled in preschool, similar to US-born black mothers and US-born white mothers. But Mexican immigrant mothers had no such increase in labor force participation. The patterns were similar when comparing other specific groups of US-born and immigrant mothers.
The puzzle is why. My study cannot definitively answer this question, but I propose several possibilities.
The first is related to the kinds of jobs that are available. The more limited set of jobs available to immigrant mothers might make it hard to take advantage of a child’s preschool attendance to go to work. Inflexible or unpredictable work hours may not allow a mother to align her schedule with that of her child’s school. Without reliable before- and after-school and summer care, preschool attendance alone will not help much.
The second possibility is that the kinds of public preschools available to different groups of families are different. Some public preschool programs provide care for a full school day and a full school year, while others meet for only a few hours a day and a few days a week. Some have in-house aftercare programs, but many do not. Where families live and how informed they are about school options can affect the kinds of preschools their children attend.
A final possibility is cultural. Mothers’ understandings of their roles, even after their children begin preschool or school, surely vary. Existing research has shown how culture matters for shaping how a mother’s education affects her employment decisions. Culture may also affect whether children’s preschool enrollment changes mothers’ decisions about whether to work.
The policy implications of my study depend in part on which of these explanations is most important. Nonetheless, the reality for almost all parents with preschool- and school-aged children is that school is an insufficient form of childcare to support full-time employment. Many families with preschool-aged children also have infants and toddlers, for whom care is even more challenging. Even when the youngest child enters school, before- and after-school hours, summers, sick children, and weather-related cancellations can make some jobs impossible for parents.
My previous research focuses on Western European countries that have a more comprehensive set of policies for early childhood education and care. I find that these more comprehensive policies are especially successful in supporting the employment of immigrant mothers whose countries and families of origin were not encouraging of mothers’ paid work outside the home.Narrowly targeted preschool policies as we have in the United States are unlikely to be sufficient to remove barriers to mothers’ employment without combining them with more comprehensive policies for early childhood education and care. More comprehensive policies would be an invaluable investment in our future.
Christel Kesler. “Maternal Employment When Children are in Preschool: Variations by Race, Ethnicity, and Nativity” in Social Science Research, 2020.
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