Access to early learning and child care has many purposes, or rationales. For decades, sociologists, child development researchers, and economists, among others, have touted the positive impact that participation in quality early childhood education and care can have on children, their families and communities more broadly (for example, see Penn, 2011).

A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics focuses on one of these purposes, or rationales, for ELCC: womens’ labour market participation. Using the rollout of Nova Scotia’s full-day Pre-Primary Program for four-year-olds, first introduced in 2018, the paper’s author, Jasmin Thomas, finds that the introduction did have a positive and significant impact on mother’s labour market participation. 

As the Pre-Primary Program rolled out across regions (school catchment areas), and more four-year-old children accessed the Program, mothers in these regions increased their employment. Overall, Thomas found that the labour market participation rate of mothers with 4-year-old children increased by 21 per cent. The increase was slightly higher for mothers whose youngest child was 4-years-old, as well as for mothers’ with lower levels of education (high school), compared with higher levels of education. The analysis also showed a higher impact for unmarried mothers, compared with married mothers, and for immigrant mothers, compared with non-immigrant mothers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no significant increase in men’s employment. 

One of the most striking findings is that access to no-cost – compared to low-cost – child care may have a significant impact on women’s opportunity costs and barriers. This is assessed by comparing the outcomes of this study to other studies looking at the impact of child care programs on employment, particularly Quebec’s low-fee child care rollout, but also Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program, and international literature. 

Thomas also points out potential, unavoidable, limitations in her study due to the availability of data. Recognizing the complex assumptions and program interactions, the study’s findings are clear: access to free early learning and child care boosts mothers’ workforce participation and strongly supports at least one rationale for expanding access to early learning and child care. 

Given the wide variation of ELCC policy design under CWELCC across the provinces and territories, there is opportunity for further research to look at the impacts of expansion of spaces on mothers’ employment in different policy contexts.