An Investment is an Investment Except When It’s Not

Gov. Phil Scott delivered a budget address full of “investments’ in Vermont’s future. It’s a great concept, but he fails to apply it consistently. Public sector expenditures he favors are “investments,” but other stuff is just wasteful spending.

The most recent example of this came with the release of a new report on the costs of improving Vermont’s wretched “system” of child care. (As with health care, it’s not so much a “system” as an abstract sculpture made of chicken wire and spit.) The RAND Corporation figures the price tag is between $179 million and $279 million, depending on how generous the package is.

Scott spox Jason Maulucci offered the usual bromide: Scott really, really cares about child care, just not enough to raise any revenue for the purpose. It’s the governor’s customary Susan Collins kind of caring.

The assertion underlying Scott’s position is this: Raising revenue for child care is pretty much exactly like putting tax dollars in a big pile and setting it on fire. Trouble is, there’s all kinds of evidence that improved child care would more than pay for itself — both in short-term economic growth and longer-term outcomes for kids.

You might even say it’s a bargain. Well, I’d say so.

Throughout his budget address, Scott touted “investments” in infrastucture, broadband, workforce development, and giving a leg up to Vermont’s struggling small towns. Those things, he’ll tell you all day, bring economic returns far beyond their up-front cost.

He’s right. But it’d be at least as correct to say the same about child care.

Researchers at Cal-Berkeley did a study of “investments’ (that word again) in expanded child care in California. They were able to quantify all the ways that child care more than pays off the increased costs. They concluded that a dollar invested in early childhood education has a “multiplier effect” of as much as 1.88 times. That’s a dollar eighty-eight in economic activity for every government dollar invested.

Greater access to child care would also increase women’s participation in the workforce, allow parents to increase their earnings, and give employers more reliable and productive staff. The study:

Turnover and absenteeism due to insufficient [early childhood education] cost businesses $1,150 per working parent each year. Research shows providing ECE decreased employee absences by 20-30 percent and reduced turnover by 37-60 percent.

That might be worth a modest outlay of tax dollars.

State funding would make child care more accessible and less costly for lower- and middle-class families. That puts more money in their pockets immediately, and they’re going to spend that money.

It’d also make it easier for young people to have kids in the first place, which is something I understand the governor would like to see.

There’d be a similar immediate effect for the child care sector. Workers who are woefully underpaid would get more money in their pockets. Child care operators would enjoy a stronger financial footing because more parents would be able to afford their services. It’s also an incentive for people to make child care a career. Might even encourage child care professionals to relocate to Vermont, hm?

Indeed, it might encourage parents of all sorts to relocate here. Probably more so than those new-worker incentives that the governor is so unaccountably fond of.

More money cycling through the economy means a stronger economy, even if the original dollars came from tax revenue.

And then there’s the social benefits of better outcomes for children. Early childhood education makes for stronger, healthier, more resilient kids, and that means lower costs for social services, welfare, substance use treatment, health care, and even criminal justice. Not to mention better workers as children become adults.

In fact, expanded child care is a goddamn bargain. Which is to say nothing of creating a more humane society, but let’s leave the moral dimension out of it for now.

Sauce goose, sauce gander. If you’re willing to posit the economic effects of capital investment, you have to acknowledge the same is true for early childhood education. Let’s hoe the Legislature has the courage and unity to push through a solid child care program, even if they have to override a gubernatorial veto to do so.

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