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Beyond the 'fiscal cliff,' America's kids need more – not less – government spending

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Parenting traits and behaviors have long differed according to parents' education and income, but this difference has increased with the advent of the modern intensive-parenting culture. Low-income parents aren't able to spend as much on goods and services aimed at enriching their children, such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp. Studies show they tend to read less to their children and provide less help with schoolwork. They are less likely to set and enforce clear rules and routines for their children. And they are less likely to encourage their children to aspire to high achievement in school and, later, at work.

Differences in out-of-home care also have widened. A generation ago, most preschool-aged kids stayed at home with their mothers. Now, many are in childcare of one sort or another. Children of affluent parents can attend education-oriented preschools, while kids of poorer parents are more likely to be left with a neighborhood babysitter who parks them in front of the television.

Children from poor backgrounds are less likely than others to enter and complete college, and in the past generation this difference has expanded, due in part to the rising cost of a college degree.

The job market has become more difficult, too. Technological advance, globalization, loss of manufacturing employment, union decline, and other developments have reduced the number of jobs that require limited skills but pay a solid wage – the kind that once moved poorer Americans into the middle class.

Family structure and behavior are key contributors to this opportunity deficit, but policymakers have limited means of influencing them. Nor can they magically create or revitalize community organizations to fill in where families falter. Yet when families, communities, and job markets fail low-income American children, government still can – and should – help.

The single most valuable step lawmakers could take would be to implement universal childcare and preschool. Think of it as extending public schooling down in the age range.

Here we can learn from the Scandinavian experience. Beginning in the 1960s, these countries introduced and steadily expanded publicly funded early education. Today, Danish and Swedish parents can take a paid year off from work following the birth of a child. After that, parents can put the child in a high-quality public or cooperative early education center. Parents pay a fee, but the cost is capped at around 10 percent of household income. The influence of parents' education, income, and parenting practices on their children's cognitive abilities, likelihood of completing high school and college, and labor market success tends to be weaker in these nations than in others.

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