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In Britain’s Approach to Free Child Care, Lessons for the U.S.

November 3, 2017
Barbara Janta
The Rand (Corp) Blog

Since 2010, every 3- and 4-year-old in Britain has been guaranteed 15 hours of free child care a week for 38 weeks a year, the equivalent of a full school term. Most working parents of preschoolers can now claim 30 hours of free care a week, a major advance for a country that long lagged behind its European peers in providing affordable, quality child care.

Although it has a long way to go to catch up with Scandinavian nations, whose policies are considered the most family-friendly in the world, Britain is setting an example that could compel serious attention in the United States. The struggle to reconcile the demands of work and family life is similar on both sides of the Atlantic, yet the U.S. is alone among major Western democracies in its failure to invest in child care for all.

Britain’s expansion of free early care, which took effect Sept. 1, is the centerpiece of government efforts to support working families grappling with child care bills that are among the highest in Europe, often costlier than a mortgage. Conservative and liberal leaders alike are united behind the program, viewing the extra £1-billion-a yearinvestment (about $1.3 billion) as a social good and essential to England’s economic vitality.

The new program is not perfect. Unlike the 15-hour allowance, it requires that parents earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week at minimum wage, effectively shutting out those at the lowest income levels who arguably have the greatest need for free child care. In two-parent families, both parents must be working and neither can earn more than £100,000 a year (about $132,000).