How Expanding Preschool Can Help Today’s Working Mothers

President Obama called for universal preschool in his State of the Union address and followed up with $75 billion in funding over the next decade to expand quality programs as well as $1.4 billion in 2014 to expand child care. Implementing such a program would not just benefit children; it would also have an important impact on working mothers.

As Sarah Jane Glynn, Jane Farrell, and Nancy Wu of the Center for American Progress highlight in a new report, today’s working parents have very limited options. They can leave the workforce to care for children themselves, which is challenging on finances and can hurt women’s long-term earnings. They can pay for child care out of pocket, which can take up more than a third of a low-income family’s budget. Or they can use federal or state-funded programs, which are very limited.

The benefits of expanding preschool, therefore, would be huge for working women, as they report:

  • Only 6 out of 10 kindergarten programs in America are open for full-day enrollees. Increased funding for Head Start and child care subsidies together can encourage extended hours to better accommodate parents’ work schedules.
  • Enabling more women to work by improving access to child care can help mitigate the gender wage gap and reduce a mother’s likelihood of going on public assistance.
  • Lower costs and increased access to child care can lead to a decrease in the number of women leaving employment and an increase in the rate of entering employment, enabling mothers to keep working when they want or need to do so.

Access to affordable and quality child care has been shown to have important benefits for women’s employment. When faced with high costs, mothers are more likely to leave their jobs and less likely to take new ones. Research from other countries shows that families who receive child care support are more likely to be employed and stay in their jobs longer than those who don’t get help. Single mothers benefit in particular, as they are nearly 40 percent more likely to keep their jobs over two years when they receive support.


Meanwhile, long waitlists for child care assistance can take a big toll on families. They are much more likely to lose their jobs, quit their jobs, or miss work due to child care problems. It also strains finances: a quarter of families on a child care waitlist in Minnesota had to rely on public assistance until they could get support.

The overall economic effects of expanding preschool are undeniable. Studies have found that high-quality, universal programs can have economic returns of $7 to $11 for every dollar spent due to children being more likely to go to college, less likely to become teen parents or commit violent crimes, and see increased earnings later in life.

Yet America lags behind most other developed countries when it comes to enrollment in preschool and spending on these programs. Other countries enroll nearly all of their preschool-aged children in programs, yet just half of American three-year-olds and two-thirds of its four-year-olds are enrolled. The U.S. is ranked 21st for the percent of GDP spending devoted to early education programs.