Friday, July 07, 2006

Data and Social Policy

I’ve been on a data kick lately focused mainly on corporations. Well, reality is corporations have decent data compared against the available data citizens and governments have around making certain social policy decisions. One such area I’ve been personally interested in is day care.

This area is charged and everyone is colored by the decisions they have already made. Ask parents who have sent their kid to day care and they will say it is a great thing for development. Ask parents who raised their kid at home and they will say it is a great thing for development. Neither wants to hear about “data” if it goes against the decision they already made.

So is there data on the impact of daycare on child development? In fact, there were two large studies in the last five years, one in the US and one in the UK. I haven’t digested the complete body of work, but in the sample of articles I have read the common theme is that kids under the age of three (and especially under the age of two) are negatively impacted by daycare; evaluators somehow rated these kids as more “anti-social” & “aggressive” and they scored ~3% lower on standardized tests than children raised at home. Now, at first glance this seems cut and dry, but there are some valid questions:

• Are the findings time-bound? So a kid did worse on a standardized test at age 6, but what happens at age 8? Age 15?
• Can I cut this multiple ways to see the impact of other variables?
• How is anti-social behavior determined? If it’s independence, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m sure it’s written up somewhere what the criteria were, but I haven’t found it yet. Anti-social is a strong worth with some pretty vivid implications and I don’t know if it’s warranted.
• What about the impact of limited daycare? Say 30 hours a week versus 50?

In the end, I don’t know if data would ever cut this Gordian Social knot … three desires that appear to be difficult to align, especially if the day care studies have valid findings:

• Parents want to earn a living and have kids
• Governments want both parents in the workforce to drive economic growth
• Society wants well adjusted kids who arguably turn into well adjusted, contributing adults

Right now, the government/business policy towards child rearing is not optimized. The US Family and Medial Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks off after giving birth and many companies provide pay during his period. But, 12 weeks only gives women time to recover, not to have significant impact on their child’s development. Businesses must balance those who take the maternity leave & pay and don’t return to work with those who want to return to work. Even those who want to return are usually forced to return fulltime within the first year. The tax incentives around child care are a mixed bag as well.

In a democracy, parents have the freedom to make their own decision. But as a society, the government can set policies that “nudge” these decisions one way or the other to promote overall security and growth. Right now these policies don’t make a forceful statement. In the end, though, a weak statement is better than codifying a bad statement.

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