In his State of the State address yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made a passing reference to preschool, saying that it is “time to fulfill the state’s goal” of providing all-day pre-K to all children in the state. He failed to mention of how to do it or how to pay for it. There had been rumors that he would propose a universal preschool program funded through the state’s budget, but he quashed those hopes well before the speech. The question of how to fund a preschool program is likely to put him at odds with newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a promise to make high-quality preschool available to the city’s children by raising taxes on the wealthiest earners.
This fight could be thorny for Cuomo, who has painted himself as a social progressive at the same time as he tacks hard right on economic issues. In his time in office, he has made big news for pushing through the legalization of gay marriage in the state, pushing a Women’s Equality Act that brought together legislation to close the gender wage gap, help the victims of domestic violence and protect the right to an abortion, and recently for proposing to legalize small amounts of medical marijuana, among other things.
These are all great. But none of them costs the state money. Universal pre-K would. So here’s a test: Cuomo says he is a staunch supporter of women’s equality. But would he spend money on it? Because sometimes it takes money to achieve social goals. He has long tried to keep economic and social issues separate, but they can’t be so neatly divided. Preschool, and childcare more broadly, is one of those issues that expose the way they overlap and interact.
High-quality preschool has certainly been proven to have many benefits for children. What gets less airtime is the benefit it would have for working parents, and specifically mothers. The United States lags far behind other countries in how many children are enrolled in preschool, and the cost of childcare in a center or someone’s home is huge, clocking in at more than median rent in every state and more than the cost of public college in many. In many heterosexual families, couples look at the cost of care and compare it to their incomes—and usually match it dollar for dollar with what the woman makes. Many women look at that equation and end up dropping out of the workforce. One study has found that mothers with regular childcare arrangements are twice as likely to stay in their jobs as those without. Their wages often drop if and when they head back to work, thanks to skill stagnation or their returning to a lower position than they would have had. About 10 percent of the gender wage gap can be explained by differing time spent working.
Preschool would help to halt and even reverse this trend: a fully funded, national early childhood education program would boost women’s employment rate by up to 10 percent. So if Cuomo really does care about the gender wage gap, as he says he does, this is an important piece of the puzzle.
But one way or another, you have to spend money to create a high-quality, universal preschool program. One group estimated that it could cost $4 billion to create one in New York. De Blasio is willing to put his money where his campaign promise is with his tax on the wealthy, which is expected to bring in about $530 million a year, enough to cover the $340 million price tag for the city. Cuomo, on the other hand, made his quick preschool reference in the State of the State amid a big, concrete plan to lower taxes. He just unveiled a $2 billion package of reduced taxes for businesses, renters, property owners and upstate manufacturers. In his address, “He mentioned the word tax or taxes about 40 times, mostly to make the assertion that he had managed to drive them down,” The New York Times reports. That $2 billion means $2 billion less in revenues that the state could use on early childhood education.
Some women’s rights issues come at no cost. Enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion in New York State is revenue-neutral, even if it might require reserves of political capital. But if you want to address the gender wage gap or the work/family dilemma, it will take something more.