Childcare in the US Is an Unaffordable Mess. We Should Look to Finland and Quebec.

The US childcare system is a crazy quilt of unaffordable, marketized options for working families. We could learn from Finland and Quebec, which treat high-quality childcare as a basic right underwritten by the state, not a money-making opportunity.

US childcare is not an integrated system, but a fragmented, confusing set of uncoordinated policies. (Natalia Lebedinskaia / Getty Images)

On March 9, President Biden released his budget plan for the 2024 fiscal year. In the three paragraphs dedicated to childcare, Biden proposed expanding federal funding for day care and early childhood education by billions of dollars and advancing toward free preschool for all four million four-year-olds in the United States. The Biden administration wants to inject $22.1 billion into existing early care and education programs, up 10.5 percent from the 2023 enacted level, including $9 billion for federal block grants.

This money is welcome and would help buoy childcare providers after a long period of intense crisis. But the Democratic proposal has two major shortcomings. First, the practical: Republicans hold the House of Representatives. Last year, even when conditions were more favorable for the Biden administration and the president was calling childcare “a cornerstone of his economic policy agenda,” a similar proposal circulated in Congress only for Democrats to remove it during budget negotiations.

Second, and more substantively: the proposal’s implementation would depend on how effectively the funding is distributed, managed, and sustained over time. It would require coordination between federal, state, and local agencies, and partnerships with providers to ensure that children received high-quality care and that families could access the programs they need.

And there’s the rub: US childcare is not an integrated system, but a fragmented, confusing set of uncoordinated policies funded at the federal, state, and local levels and guided by a privatized, market-oriented logic. The Biden administration’s plan would fund institutions (private, nonprofit, religious, etc.) incapable of constituting themselves as a system. Flooding this dispersed mishmash with money would not solve its main problems: labor shortages, quality of service, and universal access.

Fortunately, we do have good examples elsewhere of what a well-funded early childhood education system looks like. I will cover two: Quebec and Finland.

Quebec and Finland

While childcare providers in the United States have struggled with closures and worker shortages in recent years, the experience of universal subsidized childcare in a Canadian province has proved markedly different.

Nonprofit childcare centers in Quebec are considered crucial infrastructure, similar to public schools and roads, and are funded by the Canadian government. The heavily subsidized childcare system began over two decades ago. Along with providing affordable childcare, it has significantly boosted mothers’ participation in the workforce. Quebec’s rate of women aged twenty-six to forty-four in the workforce reached 85 percent, the highest in the world, before the pandemic, according to Pierre Fortin, an economist at the University of Quebec at Montreal. (The participation of working mothers in the economy generates more tax revenue than the cost of the program.)

The Quebec system isn’t flawless: it has not been able to guarantee enough slots in its nonprofit centers for all parents, resulting in government reimbursements for families attending private centers. As researcher Kendra Hurley points out, this privatization creep can produce disparities in quality and higher costs for some families.

Taken as a whole, however, the Quebec system is far better for children, families, and childcare workers than its US counterpart.

In Finland, day care is an essential aspect of the welfare state, with the Finnish government mandating that municipalities offer sufficient day care to meet local demand since 1973. Parents are offered a choice between free or low-cost public and private day care, which provide children with not just playtime, but also nutritious meals and opportunities to develop immunity, social skills, and cognitive abilities. These day-care facilities are staffed by trained early childhood education teachers.

A full 70 percent of preschool children attend a day-care service supported by the government. As in Quebec, guaranteed childcare has significantly increased female workforce participation while also preparing children for school.

The Finnish government has committed to keeping day care well-funded, aiming to maintain a ratio of one adult for every four children, the lowest of all OECD countries. That rock-bottom rate not only improves the quality of care for each child but also provides a less stressful environment for childcare workers.

The Finnish model works because, as in countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, it follows a simple premise: childcare is not profitable and must therefore be underwritten and guaranteed by the public.

Learning From Other Models

President Biden’s proposal to hike federal funding for day care and early childhood education in the United States is welcome, but it has flaws both practical and substantive. Above all, the goal shouldn’t be to simply stabilize the childcare industry, but to create an effective childcare system. Both the Quebec and Finnish models are worthy of emulation. Each model shows that it is more than possible to extend affordable, high-quality childcare as a basic right.

In the United States, immediate hurdles remain considerable, with a far-right Republican Party in control of the House and a weak-kneed Democratic Party in control of the rest of government. But the hurdles, we should remember, are political and not technical. We can have universal, high-quality childcare provided regardless of class, region, or zip code. We just have to win it.