Elect for Child Care

Nancy Folbre
10 July 2015

What can policy researchers do to help shape the upcoming U.S. debate? I can think of a lot of interesting possibilities

Like a little kid who has just gotten a grip on the monkey bars, universal childcare has finally made it to the national political arena. President Obama has been cheering it on from his oddly sidelined position, and his office has effectively  summarized the definitive economic case for public investment.

Hillary Clinton puts child care front and center in her campaign. A recent Washington Post article by Greg Sargent labels universal child care the “next big liberal cause” and describes a new plan soon to be proposed by Senate Democrats.

The changing international scene suggests that fundamental economic forces may be reshaping the playground. In Britain, Tory prime minister U.K. David Cameron has promised to double free child care. In Canada, New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair has made $15 a day child care a central plank of his party’s election platform. What can policy researchers do to help shape the upcoming U.S. debate? I can think of a lot of interesting possibilities that I’ll explore in future posts. For now, I throw out three specific recommendations:

1) Keep it simple. Existing child care subsidies vary across states; eligibility standards are difficult to understand, and eligibility doesn’t guarantee access. Long waiting lists are common. Politicians find it easier to promise child care than to actually deliver it.Tax breaks and other incentives complicate the picture. The result is not just confusion, but resentment. The British policies now being debated are so layered that its difficult for an outsider to even understand them. U.S. voters need to understand exactly what is on the table.

2) Avoid means-testing. This follows from number 1 above. Targeting public provision to low-income parents is unfair to middle-class families with dual earners who have a hard time making ends meet even if they are technically above eligibility standards based on a federal poverty line that is not adjusted for regional differences or for available family time.  Publicly-provided child care is not primarily a poverty-alleviation strategy, but an investment in human resources that will both reduce parental stress and increase economic productivity.

3) Emphasize quality. Expansion of child care and early education cannot succeed unless they deliver high quality care. This will require, among other things, better pay for child care workers. Integrating early education into our existing school system, as in the so-called PK-3 approach, would be a great idea. Note that the Canadian province of Quebec, which pioneered the approach now being proposed on the national level suffered from blow back about quality standards and effects on child outcomes.

I also think it would be a good idea to package child care with other pro-family policies, including paid family and sick leaves from employment, reduction of pay/benefit penalties for part-time work and public recognition of the value of unpaid family care. Families need flexibility and those who leave paid employment in order to care for dependents should receive some compensation, such as credits for Social Security contributions. But this is a topic for another post…

3 comments on "Elect for Child Care"

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    Ann Ferguson

    I agree with you 100% on promoting universal child care, but I would like more discussion of what makes you think Hillary is the candidate that will deliver it, especially at this stage in the campaign. Why not support Bernie Sanders who is an up front socialist? Even if he doesnt make it to the final race, supporting him now and getting him to make a statement supporting universal child care might force Hillary to give more guarantees that she will actually follow thru on that if she does win.

  2. Bootstrap Media Preview

    Thank you for offering up some common sense solutions. I think one of the reasons the debate is seemingly endless and tangible solutions aren’t put into place as often as they should be is the lack of publicity around the issue, which means non-parents aren’t aware of it and the government feels no urgency to act on it. I am a single parent who has my child full-time and I pay for the full cost of her care. I am also a graduate student and working professional, and the truth is, childcare for my daughter costs more annually than my university tuition, and as much as I pay in rent,. And though I qualify for some subsidized care, to your point, I never reach the spot on the list where we actually receive it. So, while saving for college and the cost of college tuition continues to be a hot button issue in the news and around dinner tables, the cost of infant care and preschool is not, and there are no savings plans and little viable assistance available to pay for it. Working (especially single parents) need childcare in order to remain a part of the workforce, but when they are paying a sitter or preschool almost as much as they earn, it makes surviving difficult. There are also ongoing consequences. In our case, I have had to spend so much on childcare for the past 4 years that I could not afford to rent let alone buy property in a neighborhood with a good school district so now that my daughter is going to kindergarten she is, as a result, having to attend a subpar school (badly rated with some bad reviews) and will potentially receive a less then rigorous or positive academic experience until I am able to move us, and then will have to face a transition where she changes neighborhoods, schools and everyday friends. Thus far, the government has shown no consideration at any point for the fact that the $10,000-$14,000 a year I have had to spend, just to give my child a safe and nurturing environment during the times I was at work or attempting to get ahead professionally through school meant that I could not provide her with so many other things that she has needed. These include a completely safe neighborhood and a good elementary school education. At this point, I think the only way things could change for the better so other parents won’t find themselves in situations like mine is if their stories and these issues are highlighted nationally until lawmakers feel compelled to do something, but until then, it seems like parents like me will continue to pay college tuition prices for childcare at the expense of so many other necessities in life.

  3. Bootstrap Media Preview

    DC is moving towards universal, free, full-day pre-K with a fabulous group of teachers. My three (middle-class) granddaughters thrived and their school had to build an addition to accomodate the neighborhood demand. “Universal” guarantees middle-class support, like Social Security.

    BUT: a) this is not what most people think of as “child care”; it’s educational and developmental (in addition to being fun!); and b) packaging pre-K with family leave is mixing two very different programs. Universal pre-K ends up benefiting working families as a welcome but secondary side product. It’s easier to sell politically because it benefits *children*.

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