Hillary Clinton teased out her plans to improve childcare in the United States this week. With a pair of important proposals, she hopes to win bipartisan support to provide more help to families relying on childcare services and to expand a proven effective intervention for young children.
More and more, American family budgets are being consumed by the cost of childcare. On average, childcare costs nearly $8,000 each year. Low-income families pay a whopping 39 percent of their monthly income for childcare. In 23 states, childcare for a 4-year old costs more than paying public college tuition.
At the same time, wages have stagnated and the pressure for both parents to work has grown. Few families can afford to sacrifice the income of a second earner, and single parent families have no choice but to juggle work and childrearing. Indeed, all parents work in more than 60 percent of households with children under the age of six. These families are left to stomach the huge cost of daycare for often dubious quality.
Clinton’s plan aims to get the cost of care under control. Under her plan, no family would pay more than 10 percent of its income for childcare. Campaign aides said that she would accomplish this by a combination of direct subsidies to childcare centers and tax credits to families paying for care, with more details to follow.
The framework for Clinton’s plan to protect parents from escalating childcare costs resembles a 2015 proposal from the Center for American Progress. Under CAP’s plan, families would be eligible for a tax credit subsidy tied to their income to be used on childcare at any of a number of state-identified high-quality care facilities. Low-income families could receive as much as $13,000 in annual subsidies, and families earning four times the poverty level ($97,000 for a family of four) would receive about $2,400.
One shortcoming of CAP’s plan (and thus, the skeleton of Clinton’s plan) is that it does little to expand the supply of care or improve its quality. Childcare in the United States has long been negligently under-regulated, often with tragic consequences. While Congress has recently tightened up quality regulations, the United States still lacks an established network or infrastructure of high-caliber professional care facilities.
Moreover, CAP’s report notes that there is a severe shortage of decent care options across much of the country. To that end, CAP banks on an influx of subsidies for only high-quality care to spur the creation of more and better facilities. But given the current supply constraints in childcare, more ambitious action, like government-created care centers (a public option for childcare), may be necessary in at least some communities.
Clinton’s second plan is to expand the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Initiative. The program provides home visiting services to low-income families with young children. Professional nurses, social workers, and parent educators visit parents and help them hone their child care and development skills.
MIECHV began as a small pilot program authorized under President George W. Bush and then was significantly expanded under President Obama in 2010. Today, the program provides assistance to 115,000 parents each year, and is thought to be one of our most promising and effective anti-poverty initiatives, boosting child health and brain development in the crucial early years of life. Clinton would substantially increase the program’s funding, doubling the number of families it could help.
The prospects for these plans hinge of course on Clinton winning the presidency, but also depend on the political makeup of Congress. Assuming Clinton takes office with Republicans retaining control of at least one house of Congress, passing any program requiring new funding won’t be easy.
However, there is some reason to be hopeful, particularly for an expanded MIECHV. The program has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since its genesis as a demonstrated evidence-based way to aid families and fight poverty. Last year, Congress reauthorized MIECHV at current funding levels on a bipartisan vote. Moreover, MIECHV was endorsed last year as part of a suite of consensus anti-poverty proposals from a collaboration of scholars from the center-left Brookings Institute and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Clinton is counting on this bipartisan good-feeling around MIECHV to carry into 2017 efforts to boost funding for the popular program.
The prospects for a robust initiative to make childcare affordable seem more doubtful. Representatives from both sides did band together to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant in 2014, increasing funding and finally imposing common-sense quality regulations on the program helping low-income families obtain childcare. This provides some recent bipartisan precedent for making childcare better and more accessible. But the CCDBG is a small program, costing only $5 billion each year. Clinton’s plan for generous tax credit support for families relying on daycare could cost upwards of $40 billion annually—the estimate attached to CAP’s 2015 proposal.
One might expect conservatives to readily embrace tax relief for working Americans, but recent experience suggests otherwise. In 2015, President Obama and House Democrats proposed doubling or tripling the value of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which currently subsidizes $1,000 of childcare for American families. In response, conservatives accused Obama and company of waging war on traditional stay-at-home motherhood by pushing children into commercial care and penalizing parents who want to leave the labor force to raise their children.
Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump is counting on more companies to provide on-site child care for their employees. “It’s not expensive for a company to do it,” Trump said. “You need one person or two people, and you need some blocks and you need some swings and some toys.” Trump’s non-plan, it seems, would simply leave childcare up to the generosity of individual employers and the whims of the market. This reinforces the stark inequality plaguing much of our public-private social insurance scheme, where the best-paid employees working at the biggest companies enjoy far more comprehensive benefits than most other workers.
In contrast to Trump’s complete lack of policy imagination, Clinton’s proposals are modest but important incremental reforms to alleviate the financial stress on young working families and to help low-income children in their formative years. As she pivots toward the general election, these proposals show that she is attuned to the day-to-day problems weighing on millions of Americans.