Long-term benefit of early life investment can be easily quantified

Columbus City Council recently passed an ordinance to authorize the city to spend $1 million on high-quality pre-kindergarten education programs. This represents the newest city investment in quality pre-K in Columbus, an initiative that both Mayor Andrew Ginther and City Council members have championed.

I first started studying early childhood policy last year while working as an analyst for Policy Matters Ohio. Like any good analyst, when tackling the brand new topic I found the best book on the economics of child care I could find — The Child Care Problem: An Economic Analysis — and went to work. Little did I know at the time that author Dr. David Blau is now a professor at Ohio State University.

Blau's thesis in The Child Care Problem, still as relevant today as when he first wrote it nearly two decades ago, is that good child care is undersupplied in current markets. High-quality child care provides benefits in the form of future earnings, crime reduction and reductions in social spending that are not captured by child care markets without public involvement. Thus, the public sector has reason to subsidize high-quality care and encourage parents to place their children in it.

Child care and pre-kindergarten are two sides of the same coin: They're both instances of parents putting children in care settings that will impact their life trajectories. High-quality child care settings can pay substantial economic development dividends down the road, while low-quality child care can hinder children's future earning potential.

In addition to being an economic development tool, child care policy is a tool of poverty alleviation. A year of child care in Ohio can cost more than $10,000, making a child care slot for a low-income family one of the largest single transfers a state or local government provides to poor families. In the long run, economist Timothy Bartik has estimated that high-quality early childhood programs can result in upwards of $25 in increased earnings for low-income families for every $1 of public spending.

Early childhood has become a big part of local, national and state policy conversations, with Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York winning election promising pre-K for the city's children. States like Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia have implemented universal pre-K programs. And presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently proposed national child care reform.

But while these splashy reforms catch headlines, much of the early childhood policy change in the United States is through smaller investments like those passed by Columbus City Council.

High-quality child care is a special program that promotes economic growth while also reducing inequality. This has made it an issue conservative Governor Mike DeWine and progressive Councilmember Elizabeth Brown can agree on. Hopefully this $1 million investment is a sign of future investment to come.

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a Columbus-based policy analysis firm.