In the late 1990s, families living in the Canadian province of Quebec were offered universal access to preschool for their children for the base rate of $5 a day (later increased to $8 a day).
The system worked well: Children flooded the system, many attending home-based programs when high-quality day-care systems were unable to meet the demand. Quebec now subsidizes child care for its residents to the tune of more than $2 billion annually, and the expenditure has boosted the participation of women in the labor market.
But several years after the program began, a research team of economists found that compared to their peers, children who were placed in the universal program had higher parent-reported rates of aggression and illness compared to peers in other provinces, and their families engaged in lower-quality parenting, based on longitudinal surveys.
The economists—Michael Baker at the University of Toronto, Jonathan Gruber at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kevin Milligan at the University of British Columbia—have continued to follow children who were placed in Quebec’s universal program. And they’ve found that those negative early effects have persisted, with many of the now school-aged children and adolescents showing worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates compared to children in other Canadian provinces. The researchers also found no consistent evidence that enrolling in preschool boosted academic scores.
The negative long-term effects were concentrated in boys and in those who already had elevated behavioral problems.
“The Long Run Impacts of a Universal Child Care Program” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Economic Journal.
In an interview, Milligan said that the findings were the mirror image of U.S. studies such as Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, which showed that positive early experiences for extremely disadvantaged children led to long-term benefits in “non-cognitive” areas such as health or staying away from criminal activity.
The difference in Quebec is that many of the children in the program were not coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, Milligan said. So the programs they entered may have offered a worse environment than they would have experienced being cared for at home.
“This reinforces the importance of good early-life circumstances for all kids,” Milligan said.
Other research into Quebec’s universal preschool program has focused on the quality of the preschool providers. One assessment, for example, notes that only 5 percent of the province’s programs were deemed to be of high quality when the program began; the majority were below the midrange in quality, and 10 percent were deemed to be below even miminal quality.
Milligan said that he was sympathetic to arguments that universal preschool programs can have more political support than programs aimed at smaller groups of children. But the best results are likely to be seen among children coming from the most-challenged backgrounds, he said. “You’re not going to see positive outcomes for those middle-class children from stable families,” he said.
Image by Getty
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.