HOW PRESCHOOL CHANGED THE FAMILY: Evidence from the United States

The establishment of preschools (kindergartens) in the United States contributed to a 4% fall in fertility among married women, with mothers of poor and immigrant households seeing a 15% decline. This is the main conclusions of research by Philipp Ager and Francesco Cinnirella to be presented at the Royal Economic Society annual conference in April who show that the introduction of kindergartens in the 19th Century fundamentally changed the American family.

Their research, which combines newly collected data on the roll-out of kindergartens across cities in the United States with complete-count Census samples, also shows that those that attended kindergarten stayed four months longer in school, working in higher-skilled occupations and earned 7% more later in life. Attendance at kindergarten also increased the proficiency of English among immigrant children from non-English speaking countries.

While the kindergarten concept has German roots, the idea of kindergarten teaching quickly spread to the United States in the 19th Century where it was viewed as an instrument to increase schooling, especially for children from poorer households. It was also seen as an effective method to ‘Americanize’ immigrant children. The kindergarten movement saw an increase in the attendance rate of 5-6-year-old children from close to zero in 1880 to more than 40% by 1910.

The authors show that the fertility decline is consistent with economic theory where families reduce the number of children when it becomes more ‘profitable’ to educate children. This can be triggered either by an increase in the costs of having children, such as child labour becoming less profitable, or by higher returns to education, such as their children earning higher wages.

According to their research, both factors were at play. When they compare the children, who were just too old to attend when the first kindergarten was established, with those who could, they find that this second group stayed four months longer in school, worked in higher-skilled occupations and earned 7% more later in life. They were also less likely to work during childhood, which increased the direct costs of having children.

The authors also find that English proficiency of immigrant children from non-English speaking countries significantly increased if they could attend a kindergarten. They show that the mothers of those children were also more likely to speak English. These findings, albeit based on a historical context, suggest that kindergarten education can play also today an important role for the successful integration of immigrants and refugees in rich countries.

‘Froebel's Gifts: How the Kindergarten Movement Changed the American Family’ (previously circulated as ‘The Kindergarten Movement and the U.S. Demographic Transition’ by Philipp Ager and Francesco Cinnirella)