New Support for the Economic Benefits of Universal Child Care

I met Sebastien Montpetit at the Canadian Economics Association meetings in Winnipeg last year.  He is a Canadian and Quebecer who has been studying for his PhD in economics at the University of Toulouse.  And he, with co-authors, has come up with a really fascinating analysis of the impacts of Quebec’s universal child care program ushered in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. 

The paper is complex, has multiple parts, and the latest version of it is available here.  It has been selected as one of three finalists for the Canadian Labour Economics Forum prize at the upcoming Canadian Economics Association meetings in Toronto.  I’ll give you the main take-home points right away, and then delve into where the results come from.

Sebastien’s main conclusions?

  • The importance of the supply of child care services has been underrated.  Greater supply of child care – availability – is as important as improvements in affordability.  In Quebec, the regions that had the largest increases in child care supply had the biggest impacts on mother’s employment and increased child care use.  Lowering fees without increasing coverage has modest effects on the benefits to families.  The bottom line: increasing local child care supply is key to the effectiveness of child care reforms.

  • The economic benefits from improved maternal labour supply in Quebec have been well studied and Sebastien confirms them.  But, there are very substantial non-monetary benefits for mothers too.  Think of this as work-family balance, things like the reduced search time for child care, the shorter distances that have to travelled each day when child care is much more available and affordable. 

  • When all the benefits are summed, benefits total more than 3.5 dollars of benefit per dollar of net government spending – more than twice the benefit that comes from looking only at increased mothers’ earnings.
  • Earnings gains for mothers impacted by Quebec’s child care reforms are concentrated in the fifth through the eighth decile of income. In other words, many of the fiscal benefits to governments of a universal child care reform come from mothers who can earn moderate to reasonably high incomes.  These are mothers who will not be reached by a targeted approach to child care spending.  A universal approach may therefore be more fiscally responsible than targeted child care initiatives.
  • Michael Baker, Kevin Milligan and Johnathan Gruber became renowned for their paper concluding that there were a range of negative effects on children who lived in Quebec during the early years of Quebec’s child care reforms (and may have participated in child care).  Sebastien looks at data on those children many years later and assesses whether their educational development was negatively impacted.  He finds no evidence of this; educational attainment of students in Quebec and the rest of Canada is very much the same.
  • Michael Baker, Kevin Milligan and Johnathan Gruber gained some additional notoriety for a follow-on paper that found increased juvenile criminality amongst Quebec children who were exposed to Quebec’s child care reforms.  Sebastien Montpetit looks at the evidence on juvenile crimes and finds that most of the increased juvenile crime that may have occurred was very minor and that the societal cost is relatively small.

The main data source for all of his analyses is the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth.  He also uses data from the Canadian Censuses of 2016 and 2021. 

There are four types of analysis that compose this complex paper.  First, with new data on regional child care coverage rates, Sebastien uses a difference-in-differences approach to compare mothers in Quebec to those in the rest of Canada.  He finds that in regions where child care supply increased the most, employment and child care use increased much more when other factors are controlled.

In particular, in regions where child care supply expanded more, the child care reforms boosted mothers’ labour force participation by 40% more than in other regions

Further, Sebastien finds that mothers with low levels of education also respond more in these regions with high levels of expansion.

Results suggest that for high educated mothers with a post-secondary qualification, the main incentive to take up employment was the fee reduction.  For mothers without a post-secondary qualification, access to a space was key. 

Sebastien uses a non-linear difference-in-differences model to estimate earnings gains across mothers’ income distribution.  Mothers’ earnings gains from the child care reforms are found to amount to $1.42 per $1.00 of net government spending.

Baker, Gruber and Milligan found that eligible children in two-parent families experienced worse developmental outcomes and lower consistency in parenting.  Other researchers found substantial heterogeneity in these results.  Haeck et al (2015,2018, 2022) found that most negative impacts on children and parental behaviour fade away over time.

In order to look at children’s educational attainment later in life, Sebastien employs a triple-difference model which compares education levels of same age individuals born before or after the reforms in Quebec to similar individuals in the rest of Canada.

The paper concludes: “We find no evidence of negative effects on educational attainment of eligible children in the long-run. This pattern is true for each educational level, namely for university, high school, and college completion….

 As a result: “…the negative impacts on child behavior documented by Baker et al. (2008, 2019) do not translate into depressed economic outcomes later in life.” (p. 2)  “…this evidence thus suggests the absence of negative fiscal impacts stemming from eligible children’s economic outcomes in the long run.” (pp. 2-3).[1]

Triple-difference estimator compares same-age individuals who vary in eligibility status based on the census year and their province of birth.   He finds no evidence of negative effects on educational attainment of eligible children in the long run.  This pattern is true for every educational level. 

Sebastien Montpetit takes Baker and colleagues’ estimates of increases in youth criminal activity (2019) and estimates what the victimization costs and productivity losses would be.  Using recent estimates of the costs of crime, he finds that these social costs are small.

Difference-in-differences estimates seek to use good control groups to help judge the effectiveness of some policy change.  So, for instance, children 0-4 years of age in the rest of Canada where there was no major child care reform, might be considered to be a good control group to compare to what happened with children 0-4 or the mothers of those children in Quebec.  Why is it called difference-in-differences?  Because this statistical technique does not compare the level of a variable (like mothers’ labour force participation) in Quebec to the same level in Canada.  Instead, it compares the change in mothers’ labour force participation (called a difference) in Quebec to the change over a few years (another difference) in the mothers’ labour force participation in the rest of Canada.  This analysis is done in a regression framework including other variables, so that we can see the impact of those variables on the policy result.

Montpetit then estimates a structural model of maternal labour supply and child care choice in order to make inferences about the size of the non-monetary benefits that mothers receive from Quebec’s universal child care system.  The non-monetary benefits are found to be substantial.  Using the model to do additional simulations, Sebastien concludes that these non-monetary benefits are particularly closely related to the availability of child care services in the local area.  He concludes that universal child care policies for children 0-4 can generate substantial social returns.  And he concludes that increased availability of child care is particularly important to these returns.

Sebastien notes that the quality of Quebec child care in this period was very uneven with CPEs having higher quality and other child care centres having lower quality.   Sebastien is not able to include quality measures in his analyses. 

Altogether a very interesting, carefully crafted and timely paper.  Congratulations Sebastien and co-authors!

[1] Montpetit, S., Beauregard, P., & Carrer, L. (2024). A Welfare Analysis of Universal Childcare: Lessons From a Canadian Reform