Investing in early childhood is good for society as a whole. This is the mantra repeated since the early 2000s by the European institutions, inspired by a scientific consensus on the issue. Provision of places for young children in either early-learning centres (crèches, kindergartens) or preschool is supposed to have at least three virtues.
First, such policies help gender equality by freeing women from the parental duties which generally still fall to them. Similarly, they are an effective weapon in the fight against poverty, in that they allow women – in particular less qualified ones – to avoid leaving the labour market and to pursue better careers.
Lastly, early-childhood investment can reduce both inequality and underperformance in schooling. Daycare and preschool services are understood to promote the development of cognitive capacities, personal expression and self-confidence in children, which helps prepare them for school. Reducing educational underachievement means reducing problems on the labour market and the corresponding risk of adult poverty.
Triply beneficial, such early-childhood policies are often presented as a form of “social investment”: even if costly, they can turn out to be “profitable” by forestalling social ills (school dropping-out, women’s poverty, unemployment, crime) rather than leaving them to be dealt with once arisen, which can turn out to be more costly, in the end.
In the same way, by allowing women to lead careers and so to increase their lifelong income, the state can claw back its investment by means of increased revenues (more social-security contributions and income tax receipts).
Despite all this, the latest figures show much variation between European countries. This is especially true for early-childhood care, with a rate of provision for 0-2 year-olds which varies from 5% to 65%. The figures do not show the relative weights of collective daycare (creches, for example) and the individual alternative (nurses). This despite the fact that only collective daycare is truly encouraged,