Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Public or Private Responsibility? Early Childhood Education and Care, Inequality, and the Welfare State*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Public or Private Responsibility? Early Childhood Education and Care, Inequality, and the Welfare State*

Article excerpt


Public investments in early childhood education and care (ECEC) have grown substantially during recent decades in most of the industrialized welfare states. Although ECEC provision is increasing everywhere, institutional arrangements for providing and financing services still vary substantially across countries at similar levels of economic development. This policy variation reflects variation in several interlocking public decisions about the financing and delivery of care services. By socializing the care of children to a greater or lesser degree, these policy choices have implications for the reduction of inequalities in the modern welfare state, in both family income and in labor market outcomes. In this paper we examine variation in the institutional arrangements for ECEC in fourteen industrialized countries. We then examine the consequences of these arrangements for the availability and affordability of care and the implications for the reduction of various forms of social inequality.


A substantial literature has compared the consequences of welfare state provisions for income, employment, and other indicators of individual and family well-being. Inequality has received particularly sustained attention in this literature. Scholars have documented large cross-national disparities in market-generated income inequality (e.g., Atkinson, Rainwater and Smeeding, 1995; Gottschalk and Joyce, 1995) and in the extent to which tax and transfer policies reduce within-country inequality (e.g., Bradbury and Jantti, 1999; Kilkey and Bradshaw, 1999; Smeeding, Danziger and Rainwater, 1997). The majority of cross-national studies on inequality have focused on the equalizing effects of cash provisions. By ignoring other forms of state assistance, most notably direct care services, this research has failed to capture other consequences of welfare state provisions for inequality. Public provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC) is one of the most critical omissions in this research. Scholars have compared expenditures and institutional arrangements for ECEC (e.g. Kamerman, 2000; Tietze and Cryer, 2000; Bradshaw et al., 1996). But cross-national variation in ECEC provisions has rarely been incorporated into theoretical and empirical studies of inequality.

ECEC is provided by modern welfare states for a variety of reasons. In the Nordic countries, an explicit rationale for the expansion of public ECEC has been the reduction of gender inequalities in both paid work and unpaid work. In many continental European countries, ECEC is one of several family policies that were initially pro-natalist in orientation. Public provision of ECEC in the English-speaking countries has been promoted primarily as a form of compensatory education for disadvantaged children or as a work incentive for low-skilled mothers. Whether as an explicit goal or as an unintended byproduct, however, public ECEC has significant but largely overlooked implications for several forms of inequality, both across families and between women and men.

ECEC and Inequality

ECEC has implications for several dimensions of gender equality. As the primary caregivers for children in all industrialized countries, women with young children often pay a "child penalty" in the form of reduced labor force participation relative to otherwise similar women without young children (Gornick, Meyers and Ross, 1998). Due at least partly to interruptions in their employment histories, many mothers also pay a "family penalty" in the form of lower wages (relative to non-mothers), and that persists beyond their years of intensive caregiving (Budig and England, 2001; Korenman and Neumark, 1994; Waldfogel, 1997). With weaker labor market attachments and more hours spent in the home, women across the industrialized countries also assume a disproportionate share of unpaid household labor - including both carework and housework - relative to men (Gershuny, 2000; Goldschmidt-Clermont and Pagnossin-Aligisakis, 2001). …

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