Show of Hands: Enrollment in Early Education in the United States versus Denmark

Research has shown that high-quality ECEC lessens the inequality gap between children of disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds, increasing the income potential and opportunities for upward social mobility for low-income children later in life. Thus, the US should follow in the footsteps of Nordic countries by improving its ECEC system.

By Charlotte Armstrong
Contributing Writer

Denmark has some of the lowest levels of inequality in the world, while the United States has some of the highest levels of income inequality among industrialized nations. This leads to a variety of detrimental effects on residents of the U.S., including their individual opportunities for upward social mobility. This cycle of inequality begins with children, and the quality of education they are given at an early age. 


Denmark introduced a government initiative in 1999 which guaranteed every child in Denmark a place in their local childcare system. Costs are kept low, as Danish law compels municipalities to not charge parents more than 25 percent of the average gross operation cost of their early childhood education and care programsDenmark’s publicly-run day-care institutions are high-quality— their teachers are required to meet certain qualifications and their student-staff ratios are small (1:3 for children under three years of age and 1:7 for pre-school-aged children). These measures have boosted the standardized test results of Danish children. In contrast, children in the U.S. have no lawful right to early education and care. The early childhood education and care (ECEC) system in the U.S. is predominantly privately run, which means that typically, parents must cover all costs of their child’s expensive early education. In the U.S., the average household spends 33 percent of its net household income on childcare.[1] As a result, only 53 percent of American children aged 3-4 are enrolled in early education. This only reinforces the strong levels of social and income inequality in the US, as high-quality, affordable, and accessible early childhood education and care (ECEC) can reduce the gap between children born affluent and those born disadvantaged by improving their cognitive skills and readiness for elementary school. This reduces the gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children, giving lower-income children a chance at upward social mobility.

OECD data shows that a Danish household typically spends two percent of its net household income on childcare, compared to the US’s 33 percent, demonstrating just how much more affordable childcare is in Denmark. Furthermore, the costs of childcare in Denmark are waived for children of low-income or single parent families. If a family’s annual income is less than $20,000, their child’s ECEC is entirely subsidized. Because Denmark’s ECEC system is affordable, it is highly accessible to families of all incomes and therefore sees some of the highest levels of enrollment in the world.Denmark’s parental leave policies come to an end about one year into a child’s life, at which point they are very likely to enter public child education and care. In fact, 89 percent of children in Denmark aged 1-2 are enrolled in early care (vuggestuer). They then enter boernehave, the equivalent of pre-school, in which about 98 percent of Danish children aged three to five are enrolled. In other words, only two percent of Danish children are not enrolled in early childcare/education. To implement quality care, Danish law has set standards for the qualifications of licensed child care staff— they are required to have at least two years of university-level pedagogical training. Staff-to-child ratios are also very small, ensuring that children are given face-to-face time with teachers. For children under three years of age, the staff-to-child ratio is 1:3, and for pre-school-aged children, the ratio is 1:7. All of Denmark’s investment in universal, affordable, and high-quality early childhood care and education reduces inequalities between low-income and affluent children. Danish ECEC is accessible for children trying to break out of disadvantaged circumstances and has been found to equalize ECEC access at a high level for children regardless of their mother’s education levels. This equal accessibility to ECEC in Denmark is backed up by positive academic results: Research shows that the high quality of ECEC in Denmark resulted in children enrolled scoring 15 percent of a standard deviation more in reading skills than those who were not. Participating in high-quality Danish ECEC at three years old has also been found to lead to higher cognitive scores at the age of 11, with the greatest improvements displayed in children at the low end of the test score distribution.Denmark’s ECEC, therefore, demonstrates that high-quality ECEC can lessen the school readiness gaps between children born into affluent families and those born into low-income families.

The U.S. introduced its first federally subsidized early childhood education program Head Start, in 1965, as part of the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty.” The program provided free ECEC to about 50 percent of the nation’s low-income children aged three or four. It was originally meant to be a summer-only program, but expanded into a nine-month program the year after its initiation, offering three-year grant cycles to local non-profits and school systems. The federal government provided most funding, with grantees supplying 20 percent of the funds. Schools must comply with Head Start Act standards, including providing nutritious meals for children as well as a small child to teacher ratio (17:1), and the large majority of children must be from low-income families. Head Start currently boasts more than 19,200 centers, aiding more than 900,000 children. Since its creation, Head Start has aided over 31 million disadvantaged children, and has lessened the gap between children born into privilege and those who were not, increasing lower-income children’s adult wages by ten percent, as well as their access to higher education. It’s worth noting that when children participated in the Head Start program and their K-12 system increased spending by ten percent, their adult wages were increased by an even more significant 17 percent. It seems that Head Start lays the groundwork for a successful future for low-income children, but their education should continue to be supported as they prepare to enter the workforce.

In the United States, inequality begins at birth. Children born into low-income families feel the effects of poverty and of reduced educational opportunity early on in life. The graph to the right shows that when they enter grade school, disadvantaged children are already behind their affluent peers and face the difficulty of trying to make up ground. Income inequality follows children into adulthood: adults who lived in poverty as children are more likely to have completed less school and to work in lower-paying jobs more than those who did not. In turn, their children are born into poverty, and the cycle continues. 

Quality ECEC could be the answer to breaking this cycle of poverty and income equality, but the United States does not currently consider it a priority. This is evident in the inaccessibility and expense of ECEC. The US does not guarantee every child a spot in ECEC, and the ECEC it does provide varies widely based on what each family can afford. The ECEC system in the US is, for the most part, privately run, and costs are covered privately by families rather than the government. The average family spends about 33 percent of their net household income on childcare,[2] and the nationwide average cost is $788 per month for zero to three year-olds and about $635 per month for four year-olds. Teachers are not paid fairly, with the American Public Health Association reporting in 2017 that the median salary of preschool teachers in the US is $23,320, half the median salary of kindergarten teachers. As a result, teachers leave the field, and staff to child ratios increase.

As a result, the U.S. falls behind global trends of enrollment in ECEC education: an OECD report from 2015 states that worldwide pre-school enrollment is rising, with 88 percent of four year-old children in OECD countries enrolled in 2013. In contrast, in the U.S., only 66 percent of four year-olds were enrolled in 2013. Those who are enrolled come from comparatively more privileged backgrounds. In the U.S., 70 percent of children born to college-educated mothers attend pre-school, compared to 38 percent of children whose mothers did not. Furthermore, for those children who are enrolled in ECEC, which type of care they receive largely depends on their parents’ income. As a result, many low-income children are not given the opportunity to attend even one year of ECEC, and only half of children of lower socioeconomic status attend ECEC at age four.

The inaccessibility of ECEC for low-income children in the US is particularly unfortunate, as research shows that attending ECEC before entering kindergarten boosts long-term benefits. An analysis of research studying the effects of Head Start found that, for poor children, a combination of a child’s participation in Head Start and an increase in K-12 district spending can lead to 0.59 additional years of education, 17 percent higher income, and 12 percent less chance of living poverty as an adult.

ECEC in the US must not only be accessible to children of all financial backgrounds, but also be of high quality in order to be effective. This concept was demonstrated by the poor county of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which launched a complete reform of their ECEC system, creating a program to measure quality of ECEC facilities. Their new standards emphasized a need for small classroom sizes, a staff to child ratio of 1:10, teacher qualifications which require at least an Associate’s Degree, and standardized curriculum. The program was found to improve the cognitive abilities and kindergarten readiness of participants, particularly for children who were originally academically behind their peers

Present-day efforts to change this issue have fallen short. The proposals President Trump made for making ECEC more affordable during his 2016 presidential campaign— a new tax deduction, a refundable tax credit— will not benefit the low-income or working-class families that do not have tax liability and who truly need accessibility to ECEC. In response, former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren rolled out a plan for universal child care during her candidacy. She planned to make ECEC accessible to any child in need of it and to provide high-quality facilities and teachers inspired by those of the Head Start program. Warren’s plan represents a positive shift towards making ECEC more accessible and affordable for all American families— not only for those with steady incomes or who meet certain qualifications. Such a plan has not yet come to fruition, but the research presented here reinforces that it should. Current research displays how Denmark’s ECEC system evens out the early academic skills of children of all backgrounds so that they may begin kindergarten with relatively equal levels of cognitive ability. For the US, a country which struggles with rampant inequality from a young age, it is a wise investment, one which should not be overlooked yet another time.

Photo courtesy of Governor Jay & First Lady Trudi Inslee

[1] This data applies to families with a single adult and two children, with the adult making 67% of the average wage nationwide.

[2] This data applies to families with a single adult and two children, with the adult making 67% of the average wage nationwide.

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