As Progressives Think Big, They Should Think More About Child Care

Almost half of all parents struggle to find affordable options, a new survey finds.

Medicare for all. A federal job guarantee. Free college tuition.

All of these ideas are favorites among progressives and likely to figure prominently in the campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

But there’s another idea that might belong on that list ― one that is every bit as ambitious and, arguably, every bit as critical to society’s well-being, although it hasn’t gotten nearly the same attention.

That idea is a dramatic expansion of child care assistance so that every family can afford it. And a new report helps make the case for it.

It comes from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is based in Washington and has close ties to the Democratic Party establishment.

The occasion for the report is a legislative anniversary. It was exactly one year ago Thursday that two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, introduced a bill to boost training and pay for early childhood educators, then supply enough financial assistance to families so that most of them would pay no more than 7 percent of their household income on child care.

The proposal didn’t attract much notice, in no small part because, with Republicans controlling Congress and President Donald Trump in the White House, it had no chance of becoming law. But the case for such an intervention is strong ― and, by now, pretty well-established.

The average annual cost of child care in the U.S. is between $8,600 and $8,700, according to calculations by Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group. That figure masks a lot of variation, from family to family and state to state. But overall, about one-third of families end up spending more than 20 percent of their household income on child care, according to a survey sponsored by, a website that matches up parents with caregivers.

One result is that parents end up settling for lower-quality care, because it’s cheaper or the only kind available. And that can have long-lasting effects on children’s well-being, because the first few years of life, especially the first three, are critical for brain development.

The Center for American Progress report, which comes with a new survey, points out yet another, under-appreciated way high costs affect families: by forcing parents to forgo earning opportunities.

Nearly half of parents responding to the poll said that finding affordable, decent child care is somewhat or very difficult. And 41 percent of all respondents ― a category that includes parents and non-parents alike ― said somebody in their family had passed up a promotion, chosen a less rewarding job or forgone an opportunity for education and training because of child care issues.

Parenting inevitably involves sacrifice and trade-offs, of course. But a number of economists have long argued that the U.S. does too little to support families raising children and that, as a result, it’s giving up productivity because people who want to be in the workforce ― and would contribute there ― can’t find a reliable, nurturing environment for their children.

“We have failed to invest sufficiently in our youngest members of society.”

- Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan economist

Parents in other developed countries don’t face similar problems, because their governments subsidize care or provide it directly. That’s true in Scandinavian nations, with their famously generous welfare states, but also in countries such as France, whose program for early childhood care has long earned praise from U.S. ex-pats who discovered its virtues firsthand.

“The U.S. government spends less as a share of GDP ... investing in children is where we tend to fall the most short,” Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist, told HuffPost. “We have created a robust safety net for seniors that has been successful at reducing poverty among the elderly, but we have failed to invest sufficiently in our youngest members of society.”

The program that the Murray-Scott bill envisions would fall well short of replicating a European-style program here. But it would still make a big difference, with effects that would vary depending on family size, income and location.

In Florida, according to the Center for American Progress report, a family of four with a household income of $70,094, the state median, would have to pay no more than $1,402 a year in child care costs under the Murray-Scott bill. In New Jersey, where median state income is $113,350, that family of four would have to pay no more than $2,267 annually.

Nationally, three-quarters of children younger than 12 would get at least some assistance. That works out to about 40 million children, which would be more than three times the number currently eligible for subsidies and more than 20 times the number who currently get such subsidies ― in part because the existing programs that provide assistance don’t have enough money to cover all of the eligible people.

Initial estimates suggest the bill would require new federal outlays of $60 billion, to be offset through a combination of new taxes, cuts to other programs or higher deficits — none of which the bill specifies. But experts like Stevenson say the price tag alone shouldn’t make taxpayers flinch.

“Research finds that early-learning investments provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent,” Stevenson said. “As such it’s different from a pure spending program — like Social Security or Medicare — in that, on net, the spending is recouped.”

The challenge to creating such a program has as much to do with politics as policy. Although the Center for American Progress survey shows that the general concept of more support for child care is popular, even among Republicans, it also shows that voters don’t give it the same priority as other issues, like health care.

One reason is that the topic of child care costs simply hasn’t been the subject of much discussion in Washington, or in politics more generally. But with more parents struggling, that may finally start to change.

“It really hasn’t been tested,” Katie Hamm, vice president for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, said in an interview. “But the fact that it hasn’t been tested and has high levels of support suggests it could be a sleeper issue waiting for a champion.”

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