In recent years, there’s been a massive increase in evidence on the importance of early childhood development (ECD) investments. But most of the evidence on what works to boost ECD outcomes in low- and middle-income countries comes from either home-based programs for the youngest children or preschool programs for children just before they enter primary school. What about center-based daycare programs? In many countries around the world, the number of children in daycare programs is increasing rapidly. How do they affect children and their families?
In Rio de Janeiro, the government has been rapidly expanding daycare, but the number of parents who’d like to put their children in daycare greatly exceeds the number of openings. Back in 2007, a team of researchers worked with the government of Rio de Janeiro to use a lottery to decide which kids would get slots and which would go to the waiting list. We compared the kids who won the lottery to those who got waitlisted to see what happened. We checked in during the first year, four years later, and then again seven years later (long after all the kids were primary school age). In a new study—"Public childcare, labor market outcomes of caregivers, and child development: experimental evidence from Brazil”—we (together with several other co-authors) document the results. While ours certainly isn’t the first study to document the impact of center-based care in a low- or middle-income country, this research yields new insights by studying a program that is implemented at scale by standard government systems, following children and their families over the course of seven years, and examining impacts on other family members (including grandparents and older siblings).
What Happened to the Kids?
Kids aged 0-3 who won the lottery got a slot in a publicly run daycare center that provided a full day of care (so parents could work). Of course, even families who didn’t win the daycare lottery often put their kids in some sort of care: maybe they put their child in private daycare, or they re-entered (and won) the lottery the next year. We find that children who won the daycare lottery were in daycare about 34 percent longer during their first four years of life than kids who didn’t—almost two-thirds of a year extra time in care.
The children who won the lottery were taller and weighed more for their age, even seven years later. Those effects were biggest for girls and suggest that the regular meals provided at daycare in critical years can make a lasting difference. Children performed better cognitively after four years, but after that, other kids caught up. (It’s pretty common for cognitive benefits of early interventions to fade.) We don’t see any impact—positive or negative—on children behavior. This is good news: some evidence from high-income countries suggests adverse impacts of daycare on children’s behavior or other socioemotional skills. We don’t see that here.
What Happened to Caregivers?
Daycare isn’t just about the children. It also impacts other family members, although far too few studies measure those impacts. Caregivers of children who won the lottery had lower levels of stress in the year after the lottery, and four years later, they were more likely to read to their kids.
Perhaps surprisingly, we don’t see big employment effects among the parents of children who won the lottery, probably because most were already working. Where we do see big labor market impacts is among grandparents: four years after the lottery, grandparents of children who won the lottery were 21 percentage points more likely to be working. They were working more hours, and they were much more likely to be contributing to social security, which suggests that they had jobs in the formal sector. Adolescent siblings (aged 15 and above) were also more likely to have jobs, albeit less so. These effects translated to higher household incomes of between 5 and 10 percent.
Publicly provided daycare can benefit children’s nutrition and yield short-term benefits to children’s cognitive development, without having adverse impacts on children’s behavioral development. It can also benefit the rest of the household, with more work opportunities and higher incomes.
With ongoing investments in further improving the quality of the care, the benefits to children could be even greater.
The study was authored by Orazio Attanasio, Ricardo Paes de Barros, Pedro Carneiro, David K. Evans, Lycia Lima, Norbert Schady, and Pedro Olinto. It is available as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper and a Centre for Microdata Methods and Practice working paper.
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