With so many women running for the Democratic presidential nomination, it is perhaps unsurprising that child care is emerging as a major topic on the policy agenda. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand all feature child care proposals on their campaign websites. So far, Senator Bernie Sanders is the sole male candidate to do so. Not to be outdone, first daughter Ivanka Trump is offering a distinctively Republican approach to the issue.
In child care, as in so many other social policy domains, the United States has taken its own unique course. Unlike most wealthy market societies today, the United States has failed to develop a nationwide, government-subsidized and -regulated system of child care. Instead, we have what many have disparaged as a “patchwork” of services, varying in quality and inadequate in quantity. As record numbers of women with pre-school children enter the labor force or pursue higher education—many of them the sole breadwinners in their households—demands for more affordable, convenient, and high-quality child care have grown louder, and candidates are heeding the call.
This is not the first time presidential candidates have talked about reforming child care. In 2016, Hillary Clinton placed it on her campaign to-do list, proposing that the Federal government subsidize the cost of child care so that it would take up no more than one-tenth of a family’s total household income, with anything over that to be reimbursed via tax credits. Sanders, then her primary opponent, went one step further, calling for universal child care funded by the government, though he ended his campaign without providing specifics.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump came up with not one but three ways to address the high cost of child care: expanding the tax credit for low-income families, giving higher-income families a tax deduction, and allowing families to set up tax-free savings accounts for care expenses. At least two of these measures, Trump claimed, would especially benefit low- and middle-income families. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center differed, pointing out that “about 70 percent of benefits [would] go to families with at least $100,000 and 25 percent. . . . to families with at least $200,000. Very few benefits,” they concluded, “[would] go to the lowest income families who are likely to struggle most with paying for child care.”
Even analysts at the conservative American Enterprise Institute saw the same flaw in Trump’s proposals. Michael Strain, one of their economists, told the Washington Post, “I’m most concerned about a single mother who doesn’t earn a lot of money and who has a couple of kids at home. . . .The benefits of this policy will not accrue to the people who most need help.”
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, had been thinking about child care for decades. Her first job out of Yale Law School, in 1973, was as a staff attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund, the pioneering advocacy organization headed by Marian Wright Edelman. Clinton went on to join CDF’s board and eventually became its chair. In 1989, she was invited to join a delegation of 14 prominent professionals who, under the aegis of the French-American Foundation, spent two weeks visiting public child care facilities in France. Lauding the variety of services on offer for children from infancy to pre-school age—some free, some charging on a sliding scale—Clinton told the New York Times, “It all adds up to a systematic approach to young children. . . . The problem in the United States is that we have no approach.”
What Clinton no doubt had in mind was the exchange on child care between 1988 presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, which revealed the parties’ wide divergence on the issue. Both candidates called for roughly the same amount of funding (just over $2 billion) but differed sharply on how it would be spent. Dukakis emphasized the need for more regulation; Bush seemed to support anything but. While he proposed giving tax credits to families with children at all income levels, either to help support stay-at-home parents or pay for care by other relatives, neighbors, or unregulated services, Dukakis wanted to direct Federal payments to low- and moderate-income families with wage-earning parents and cover only services that met Federal and state standards.
By the time Clinton went to Paris, the debate over child care had migrated to Capitol Hill, where a heated debate ensued between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the new Republican occupant of the White House. The Democrats persisted in calling for more regulation and subsidies to low- and moderate-income families, but also requested funding to improve the quantity and quality of services. Meanwhile the Republicans continued to resist regulation and pushed for measures encouraging mothers to stay at home (by this time more than half of women with children under age one were in the labor force). In addition, the Republicans, responding to heavy lobbying by evangelical groups, demanded that religiously affiliated services be covered.
After two years of wrangling, Congress finally produced the Child-Care Assistance Act, which was folded into the 1990 budget reconciliation bill. The $22.5 billion, five-year package expanded the earned-income tax credit to cover the cost of child care and offered grants to states to improve quality. When it came to regulation and religion, lawmakers compromised: To be eligible for Federal funds, providers had to be “licensed, regulated or registered” and comply with applicable state-level health and safety requirements, but parents would be allowed to obtain vouchers which they could use to pay for religiously-affiliated services. Modified over time and eventually renamed the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the CCAA is still in place, but it has failed to keep pace with the cost of child care and is thus considered inadequate by most Democrats and even some Republicans.
A Plethora of Proposals
This time around, the most thought-out plan comes from Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act has two main goals: making affordable, high-quality child care universally available and preparing children for school. Services would be free to households earning less than 200 percent of the Federal poverty line (currently $51,200 for a family of four) and available on a sliding scale to households above that level, up to 7 percent of their total income. “In the wealthiest country on the planet, access to affordable and high-quality child care and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich,” Warren has stated.
Warren envisions a network of federally funded but locally run facilities comprising both child care centers and family child care homes, all of which would be required to meet rigorous standards based on those currently governing U.S. military child care and the Head Start program. The estimated cost, $700 billion over ten years, would be offset by another Warren proposal: her “Ultra-Millionaire Tax.” Once in place, she estimates, her plan would nearly double the number of children in formal child care, from 6.8 million to 12 million.
Warren’s proposal has already generated lively debate on the Left as well as the Right, with some surprising convergence. Both Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review, and Matt Bruenig, writing in Jacobin Magazine, worry that capping family expenditures at 7 percent of income would encourage parents to opt for expensive “Cadillac” child care centers, since the government would pick up the tab for any additional cost. While it is understandable that parents want the best for their offspring, such a policy would rapidly drive the Federal government into bankruptcy. As Salam puts it, “Closing future federal deficits with a wealth tax would require importing a slew of new ultra-millionaires from another dimension and then taxing them with abandon,” something Congress would likely prohibit. Bruenig, however, contends that the cost-control problem could be avoided by capping the amount centers could pass on to the government.
Both Bruenig and Salam also criticize Warren for not including some form of compensation for stay-at-home carers. Bruenig objects to this for reasons of equity; Salam, similarly, notes that this omission “would mean privileging one normative conception of family life over another.” Salam also fears that encouraging more parents (read: mothers) to enter the labor force would drive up the cost of living and competition for real estate in neighborhoods with good schools. Both authors note that, ironically, Warren brought this objection on herself by arguing, in her 2004 book The Two-Income Trap, that such “frenzied bidding wars” would force all parents to work outside the home, whether they wanted to or not. Oddly, Warren’s position here seemed to echo that of the Republicans in the 1988-89 debates over child care.
Other candidates are tailoring proposals to meet the child care needs of their own states. For Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), cost is paramount, so she proposes expanding the existing Federal child care tax credit from $3,000 to $14,000—a whopping figure, but one that is more in line with the actual cost of services in New York State. Gillibrand also calls for tax incentives to encourage businesses to create more on-site child care and become more family-friendly by allowing employees to telecommute.
Gillibrand is the only Democratic contender to propose mobilizing business in order to expand child care. While some policymakers see this as a sensible solution, others fear that on-site services bind employees too closely to a particular employer. Employees may be reluctant to leave jobs that don’t suit them or take better offers if it means uprooting their children from familiar surroundings and caregivers and facing the challenge of finding another slot. (Retaining valued employees is, of course, the reason employers offer on-site child care in the first place.)
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) regards her state’s most pressing problem to be “child-care deserts”—rural areas where a lack of services bars parents, especially women, from working outside the home. Her bill, the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, which she introduced in March along with Republican Senator Dan Sullivan (AK), would address this shortage by allowing states to compete for Federal grants to create or expand existing facilities and train more child care professionals. “Child care shortages across the country pose a moral and financial issue for communities when parents are forced to decide between working and staying at home with their children,” Klobuchar states on her website.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is also concerned about the supply of qualified child care professionals, but her approach differs markedly from Klobuchar’s. Instead of calling for Federal funding, she supports unionization for child care workers. By organizing, they could raise wages and Improve working conditions, thereby making the occupation more attractive. Harris recently told a contingent of workers, “The greatest expression of a society’s love of its children is to put resources and support into anybody who is caring for those children.” Like Gillibrand, Harris also calls for increasing the refundable tax credit—in her version, from $3,000 to $6,000—but she would not limit it to child care expenses.
Just a Women’s Issue?
Disappointingly, most of the male Democratic candidates have shown little interest in, much less understanding of, child care. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren, co-sponsored the 2017 Child Care for Working Families Act, but he does not feature it on his website. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang calls for “tax breaks for child care services,” without acknowledging those that are already in place. Julian Castro (D-TX), former Maryland Representative John Delaney, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee all express support for pre-K or early childhood education without indicating that they understand the difference between those part-time programs and full-day child care. Inslee, in fact, has been called out for just that. Ryan Pricco, a Washington-based child care advocate, chided his governor for failing to appreciate the scope of the challenge. “We’re literally at a point where demand for child care is higher than it’s ever been in our country’s history,” Pricco said, “and we’ve never, ever invested in child care at a level that would provide an infrastructure to take on that demand.”
Other male candidates have been even less forthcoming. Beto O’Rourke, a former Congressman from Texas, has been rather cavalier on the issue, joking that his wife was raising their kids “sometimes with my help.”
The two male exceptions are Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Pete Buttigieg, the gay Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Since his run in 2016, Sanders has made child care one of his central issues. While the female candidates all refer to their personal challenges in finding decent affordable child care, Sanders has relied on the experience of his policy director, Kathryn Becker Van Haste, who reportedly had difficulty finding slots for her children in both Vermont and Washington, DC. But limited personal experience has not prevented Sanders from sharpening his analysis of the child care policy dilemma.
Like the other candidates, Sanders regards the cost of care as a huge burden for many families. To make matters worse, he believes, child care workers are, in effect, subsidizing the system through their low wages. Sanders agrees with Harris that their wages should be raised but warns that doing so without public subsidies would make the cost of child care even more prohibitive for parents.
One reason child care is so costly, according to Sanders, is that the United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid parental leave, which gives parents the option of staying home to care for newborns. We have had unpaid family and medical leave since 1993, when it was signed into law by newly elected President Bill Clinton (after being vetoed twice by President Bush), but low- and moderate-income parents can seldom afford to take it because it means foregoing wages. However their alternative—using infant child care—is hardly viable since it the most expensive of all because of (understandably) high mandatory caregiver-to-child ratios.
Buttigieg also acknowledges the need for paid parental leave. In response to a question about child care at a recent town hall in Fort Dodge, he deplored the fact that the United States is the only advanced country that does not have such a policy and reported that, in defiance of his state’s refusal to set a community standard, he had instituted six weeks of paid parental leave for all city employees, joking that it caused “something of a baby boom.” With regard to child care, Buttigieg acknowledged the high cost, calling for a “child allowance for working parents,” and he also suggested that there should also be some kind of assistance for elder care, but did not go into detail about either one.
The Republican Option
Except for the aforementioned Senator Sullivan, Republican lawmakers have been largely silent on the subject of child care. President Trump’s daughter Ivanka, however, has made it one of her signature issues. In one respect, Ivanka Trump’s ideas resemble Kirsten Gillibrand’s: Both favor encouraging businesses to take the initiative in increasing supply. But while Gillibrand does not specify either a funding cap or time limit for Federal aid, Trump calls for a one-time, $1 billion investment “to increase the supply of child care to underserved populations.”
It is not unusual for Republicans to trust the market to provide social benefits (think health insurance), but Ivanka Trump’s plan adds a few extra GOP twists. First, she stipulates that states must “establish targets for reducing unnecessary regulatory or other requirements that limit the supply or increase the cost of child care.” Such a proviso is alarming in a human service field that is already notoriously under-regulated. The White House, however, insists that what daughter Trump seeks to eliminate are not health and safety standards but, for example, restrictive zoning laws that keep child care centers out of residential neighborhoods. The statement suggests that someone in the President’s circle was aware of the Democratic outcry that ensued when George H.W. Bush tried to lower standards. But the proposal itself offers no guarantee that regulations needed to protect children’s well-being will be maintained, much less strengthened.
Second, in a little-noticed section of her proposal, Trump suggests that states use funding “to support child care providers that operate during nontraditional hours.” It is true that many employees, especially but not only those in low-skilled jobs, must work long hours and take shifts that fall outside the usual 9-to-5 parameters that child care services typically accommodate. But should children have to pay the price for satisfying employers who demand that workers be available at all hours of the day or night? An emergency room physician who works the night shift can probably afford to hire a babysitter to care for her child at home, but an office cleaner cannot, so her child would be the one placed in a “night nursery,” possibly to the child’s emotional detriment. (And when, one might wonder, does that office cleaner herself have a chance to sleep?) Having more facilities with non-traditional hours in place would only encourage employers to take advantage of wage-earning parents who lack other job opportunities.
Child care aside, Congressional Republicans have been more vocal when it comes to improving maternity and parental leave, which has always been unpaid in the United States. To remedy this shortcoming, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Ann Wagner (R-MI) recently introduced the New Parents Act, a bill that would cover about two-thirds of the wages of parents earning less than the median family income (currently about $60,000). “Our economic policies have left young, working families behind at a time when our marriage and childbirth rates are falling,” Rubio told the Washington Post. “It is time to realign our economic policies in support of American families.”
But again, this proposal comes with a Republican-friendly twist: parents would have to repay any leave money they receive by foregoing some of their future Social Security benefits, by either delaying retirement for three to six months or allowing deductions from their pensions for up to five years.
The United States Among Its Peers
The absence of paid parental leave and universal child care are just two of the (non)policies that make the United States exceptional when it comes to social protection. Most of its political and economic peers in the OECD have some sort of public provisions for young children—at least part-day early childhood education, if not full-day child care—leaving the United States at the low end of the scale.
In the field of child care, France and the Scandinavian countries are the well-known stars, with systems of universal, high-quality, and highly subsidized provisions that have been expanding since the post-World War II era. The United States could learn a great deal about child care from these countries, yet most of our policymakers seem either willfully oblivious to or reluctant to cite these excellent models (perhaps out of fear of being labelled socialists). Again, Sanders is the exception; his proposal touts Finland as a model, where even the wealthiest parents pay only $300 a month for child care (whereas for American parents, the average fee is $1,000 per month per child).
To be sure, the political cultures and associated histories of welfare state development in these model nations differ markedly from those of the United States, but their trajectories may be converging. Child care experts on both sides of the North Atlantic have historically separated child care from early childhood education. But new studies of early brain development have drawn policymakers’ attention to the overlap between these two realms and the need to integrate them more fully. In the United States, “educare” has become a catchword, while the Europeans have led the way in devising programs in “ECEC”—Early Childhood Education and Care.
While the goal of gender equality does not enjoy quite the level of support in the United States that it does in Scandinavia (where it is not only enabled by social policy but written into many areas of law), it has certainly become more mainstream here than ever. With so many women vying to lead our nation and a record number of women in Congress, it is becoming clear that advocacy for child care, among other women-friendly positions, is good politics—so much so that even the current incumbent of the White House seems to be coming on board.
The proposals on child care that current candidates have (or have not) laid out tell us much more than their views on this one particular issue. They indicate whether candidates view children solely as an individual and family responsibility, or as the country’s future and therefore worthy of public support. They reveal candidates’ beliefs about women’s roles in our society and their commitment to achieving gender equality. They also show how candidates think about what role, if any, government should play in organizing and supporting social provision.
Debating child care may not only produce a stronger and wiser approach to this important issue but will also give voters an opportunity to see the candidates in action, addressing an issue that challenges millions of families every day. While not the only basis for choosing our next President, child care policy seems like a good place to start.