Here’s the surest sign yet that child care is becoming a serious issue in American politics: Even Donald Trump is talking about it.
On Monday, Trump gave a major policy speech at the Detroit Economic Club. Mostly, Trump used the opportunity to make the case for ideas he had already proposed, like new tariffs on imports and big tax cuts that mostly help the wealthiest Americans. But then Trump introduced something totally new. He announced that he would fight to make child care more affordable.
Is Trump serious about this? Probably not. The real estate mogul has been campaigning for more than a year, and Monday appears to be the first time he expressed sustained interest in child care policy, let alone a determination to focus on it. Back in November, when an Iowa voter asked Trump how he intended to help parents pay for child care, he basically dodged the question ― stating only that many companies should just provide it on their own, as a benefit of employment.
Nor does it appear that Trump and his advisers spent a lot of time constructing the new policy ― or thinking through how it might work in practice. During the Detroit speech, Trump described his proposal in a straightforward way: He said that working parents would be able to deduct the average price of child care from their taxes. This is also the way the campaign explained the proposal on the official website and in materials that staff distributed Monday morning.
But tax deductions are worth a lot more to people who make a lot of money ― and worth absolutely nothing to people whose incomes are so low that they owe no federal income taxes at all. Naturally, these are the people who need help the most: A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that child care would soak up more than 10 percent of median income in a sample of communities across the country ― and would positively overwhelm families making minimum wage.
Within hours of Trump’s announcement, pretty much every major publication had a story with a headline like the one that ran in in Politico: “Why Trump’s child care plan won’t help poor families.” Not long after, the Trump campaign was spreading the word that the full proposal actually had other elements ― telling The New York Times that Trump would also allow “parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes.” (Families too poor to pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes.)
Adding such a provision would introduce all sorts of new complications, since payroll taxes finance Social Security. (Would Trump replace the revenue that the Social Security Trust Fund would lose? Would people who take the exclusion be eligible for the same Social Security benefits at retirement?) And even with such a provision in place, Trump’s plan would still provide bigger benefits to more affluent Americans.
The contrast between Trump’s approach to child care policy and Hillary Clinton’s is striking. For one thing, she’s got a long history on the issue ― going back at least to the early 1990s, when she was serving on the board of the Chlldren’s Defense Fund and touting France’s child care system as a possible model for the U.S.
As a presidential candidate this year, Clinton has talked about child care constantly ― starting with her announcement speech last June in New York City, when she called for making “preschool and quality child care available to every child in America.” In May, Clinton sketched out the broad outlines of how she intended to accomplish that, vowing that her plan, if enacted, would mean no family has to pay more than 10 percent of its income on child care.
The contrast between Trump's approach and Clinton's is striking.
Such a plan, properly designed, would almost certainly cost a great deal of money. That’s probably why Clinton has not provided more details on how her scheme would work. But Clinton has said that she would offset the cost of new initiatives with either spending cuts or new revenue ― and so far, according to independent budget experts, her proposals have been largely consistent with that pledge. (Trump’s policy promises, by contrast, would make the government’s long-term debt problem far worse because his tax cut would so dramatically reduce revenue.)
Clinton’s child care proposal also includes provisions to expand home visiting for new and expectant mothers, since studies have shown such programs can significantly improve intellectual, mental and even physical health for kids growing up in low-income neighborhoods. Clinton has also called for boosting the salaries of child care providers, in the hopes of attracting workers with more training and giving them more reason to stay on the job. Many experts believe that doing so would bolster child care quality, which in this country is famously uneven.
Economists and social policy experts disagree about the relative merits of Clinton’s proposals. But few dispute that the candidate and her advisers have spent a lot of time thinking through the problems with American child care ― and how to fix them. Nothing about Trump’s plan, or the haphazard way he has introduced it, reflects that kind of effort.
Until recently, Republicans mostly avoided the issue altogether.
But Trump’s announcement still signals an important change in the politics of child care. The closest the U.S. has ever come to enacting a comprehensive child care program was in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon vetoed bipartisan legislation. Nixon’s veto statement warned that subsidizing child care would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Since then, Republicans have mostly avoided the issue altogether.
Trump would seem like an unlikely candidate for challenging this tradition, given his famously retrograde attitudes about women. During a 1994 interview with ABC News, he said “I think that putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing,” But Trump also listens to his daughter, Ivanka. During the Detroit speech and then again on Fox News Tuesday morning, Trump mentioned that he was relying on her heavily to shape his child care proposals.
Ivanka Trump is 31, which means she’s grown up in a world in which the majority of women work. She’s also got a career and three children of her own, which means she knows first-hand the challenges of juggling work and family. She made that point during the Republican National Convention last month, when she proclaimed that her father would “focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all.”
Given Ivanka’s financial resources, it’s safe to assume she hasn’t struggled in the same way that, say, a single mother cleaning hotel rooms has. Perhaps that also helps explain why Trump’s child care proposal, even in its modified version, would do so little to help the poor and working class.
But she’s also spoken out against the negative stereotypes of working women that Republicans once deployed. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, published just this week, she described herself as “a huge advocate for women and women’s issues, like child care. The cost of child care is incredibly onerous. In half the country, the cost of child care exceeds the cost of housing. It’s the largest expense for households. It’s not sustainable or appropriate.”
Ivanka’s attitudes are emblematic of how younger voters feel, making them a leading indicator of where public opinion is headed ― and what Republicans will have to say publicly about child care just to remain credible in the eyes of this emerging electorate. That will make legislation more likely, even if the political obstacles remain formidable.