The Taub Center has published a unique booklet of data that paints a complicated picture of early childhood in Israel. The booklet “Early Childhood in Israel: Selected Research Findings, 2022” presents data on major differences between Jews and Arabs in enrollment rates in early childhood education and care frameworks (ECEC) from birth to age 3, and also deals with the high rates of poverty among children in Israel. The booklet is more relevant than ever given the entrance of a new government and the storm surrounding the issue of the transfer of responsibility for early childhood education frameworks from the Ministry of Education back to the Ministry of Economy and Industry. The Taub Center researchers have proposed policy options to deal with the complex situation in early childhood education and care in Israel. The booklet was produced as part of the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, which is supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the Beracha Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv.
In Israel, about one-quarter of families with very young children live in poverty, mainly in the Arab and Haredi sectors. According to OECD data, the rate of relative poverty in Israel among children from birth to age 17 was 22% in 2019. The Taub Center findings show that the share of households with children under the age of 4 living in poverty is even higher — one-quarter of these households live under the poverty line. The share of households with children of these ages that live under the poverty line is particularly high among Haredim (58%) and Arabs (55%) and low among non-Haredi Jews (8%).
The poverty data hold great importance for the success of young children in their future lives. Students whose families were in the lower quintile of the income distribution during the first thousand days of their lives have lower achievements on the Grade 5 Meitzav exams, even after controlling for family income during later years. In contrast, a top-quintile family income during the first thousand days of life is positively correlated with high achievement in these exams. In other words, economic inequality during the first thousand days of life may partially explain the major disparities in academic achievement across socioeconomic groups in Israel, as evidenced by the results of the Meitzav exams and other exams such as PISA and PIRLS.
In order to increase the enrollment rate in educational frameworks of children from families from weaker population groups, the government has budgeted funds and is investing money, but the findings show that not all of the population groups are able to fully utilize these resources. For example, between 2014 and 2019, the government allocated NIS 1.17 billion for the construction of day care centers for very young children. Although about a quarter of this was to be for use by Arab localities, the utilization rate among these localities was only about 50% —as opposed to 79% used by Haredi localities and 61% by non-Haredi Jewish localities.
The government also offers subsidies for children of working parents to attend supervised ECEC frameworks, and government participation in tuition for children in supervised daycare and family daycare through the Law for Young Children at Risk has almost doubled during the last decade — from NIS 660 million in 2009 to about NIS 1.3 billion in 2019. The expenditure on subsidizing children in daycare centers based on the Law for Young Children at Risk has risen from about NIS 257 million to NIS 416 million.
A large share of children in Arab towns enrolled in educational frameworks are accepted based on the Law for Children at Risk — 41% as compared to 11% in non-Haredi Jewish local authorities and 8% in Haredi local authorities. About 54% of children with working parents in the Arab sector are eligible for high levels of subsidies in supervised frameworks, as compared to 89% among Haredim and 30% among non-Haredi Jews. Subsidy eligibility is primarily based on the level of income per capita in a household with young children. The income threshold of eligibility is much lower among Arabs and even lower among Haredim primarily due to their large number of children. Nevertheless, many Arab mothers do not send their children to these frameworks due to the high cost relative to their wages. As a result, the share of Arab children in supervised frameworks is particularly low relative to the rest of the population, at about 18%.
In Arab society, the share of children from birth to age 3 who are enrolled in ECEC frameworks and whose mothers have an academic education is almost double that of children whose mothers do not have an academic education (67% vs 36%). Among Jews, the difference is small and the rate of enrollment in both groups is very high (93% vs 88%). For children ages 3 to 6, no relationship was found and enrollment is almost universal.
Over the last decade, the number of children enrolled in supervised early education and care frameworks, and primarily daycare centers, has grown by 34%. Nonetheless, a study by the Taub Center found that enrollment in a framework up to the age of three does not contribute to the cognitive development of children in terms of reading achievement in Grade 4. This may be the result of the low quality of these educational frameworks in Israel (as reflected in the low education level of the staff and the high ratio between the number of children and the number of staff members).
On the basis of the research findings, Taub Center researchers laid out options for narrowing the incidence of poverty among families with young children and point to policy directions that can result in increasing the participation rates of young children in supervised ECEC frameworks in Arab society. The following are the main points:
Shifting of part of the child allowance from teenagers to infants: Instead of a universal child allowance, it is worth considering a differential allowance, such that families with young children will receive a larger benefit and families with older children will receive less.
A voucher program: A voucher program to supplement the nutrition of young children and to provide them with a healthy food basket for children in families with low income, like programs that exist in the US. Apart from immediate economic assistance, such programs are likely to also have an impact on the cognitive development and academic achievements of children later in life.
Increasing the work grant and the guaranteed income supplement: Increasing the work grants, primarily for working parents with young children, will help encourage their parents’ labor force participation. It is also suggested to increase the guaranteed income supplement and uptake among poorer families through the use of “conditional transfer payments” (payments to families that are conditional on their participation in vocational training programs or a parenthood course).
Creation of infrastructure for early childhood frameworks in Arab towns: Modification of the planning rules for building in crowded Arab towns and on private land; an increase in resources allocated to the planning and building of daycare centers; the addition of positions and the hiring and training of professional manpower. This program can be implemented as a joint project between government and civil society organizations.
Removal of barriers blocking access to supervised frameworks in the Arab sector: Implementation of a pilot program to assess whether canceling subsidies based on the mother’s employment and the adoption of a universal model can lead to an expansion of access to frameworks and even an increase in labor force participation rates among Arab women; revamping of the registration process to make it more accessible; adoption of a more flexible public transportation system with wider access in Arab towns.
Reducing the fees for supervised frameworks in the Arab sector: Increasing subsidies so that fees do not exceed NIS 1,000 per month; adding the possibility of a short school day, which will also be suited to mothers working part-time; utilization of the unused portion of the tax benefit for parents in order to increase the direct subsidies to working mothers who do not reach the subsidy tax threshold; tax benefits for employers who finance childcare services for their workers.
In conclusion, the findings show how inequality and social gaps harm the future of children in Israel. It is upon the education system in Israel and policy makers to work to improve the situation for children early on in their lives – the sooner the better.