What is the goal of child care policy?
I think Democrats have picked the wrong ones
I was thinking about Democrats’ proposal to subsidize child care costs for kids under three (they have a different plan to provide pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds), and I think it’s useful to step back and ask, “What are we trying to achieve with our early family policy?”
The goal matters in every policy area, but the child care situation has gotten unusually fraught due in part to a failure to have a frank discussion about aims when different plausible goals lead to very different policy designs.
Wartime child care in the United States
A number of articles over the past few years have looked back nostalgically at federal child care efforts during World War II. Exemplary entries in this genre include Lydia Kiesling’s “Paid Child Care for Working Mothers? All It Took Was a World War” (NYT; October 2, 2019), Rhaina Cohen’s “Who Took Care of Rosie The Riveter’s Kids?” (The Atlantic; November 18, 2015), and Betty Little’s “The US Funded Universal Childcare During World War II — Then Stopped” (History Channel; May 12, 2021).
Some of these headlines may be overstated. The links in her piece have unfortunately gone dead, but Cohen’s text says that there were roughly 3,000 child care centers that served a maximum of 130,000 kids at any one time, adding up to roughly 550,000 children over the course of the war. This program was the result of the Lanham Act, and Cohen writes that “Lanham funds made it to only about 10 percent of the children in need,” in part because “the government had a hard time amassing a sufficient staff.” So there was never a time when we had a comprehensive, federally-run child care system meeting all or even most families’ needs. But we did have something pretty large and ambitious that was then dismantled after the war rather than expanded on.
This wartime system, however, had a clear goal: to maximize the size of the American labor force in order to maximize wartime production and defeat Germany and Japan.
And that was a good goal, given the circumstances of the time. But we are not currently at war with the Nazis, so it actually doesn’t seem obvious that maximizing labor force participation should be our goal.
Support families neutrally
I think it’s sad that Americans, on average, have fewer children than they say they’d ideally like. Jill Filipovic says that “for a great many individual women, reconsidering motherhood doesn’t reflect hardship or unmet desire, but rather a new landscape of opportunity.”
And of course, she’s right. In a nation of 330 million people, we have heterogeneous preferences with people making different choices for different reasons. But when Claire Cain Miller polled on this, she found that the number one stated reason was “child care is too expensive,” followed by “want more time for the children I have,” “worried about the economy” at number three, “can’t afford more children” at number four, and “waited because of financial instability” at number five.
People are not perfectly reliable narrators of their own decision-making, but the rising cost of labor-intensive child care services does seem to be a major issue for most people at least.
I think the most natural way to address this is with money. Democrats’ expanded Child Tax Credit would put cash in the hands of almost all American parents. Democrats also have a plan to expand public schooling to cover 3- and 4-year-olds. What you’d ideally like to do on top of that is make the CTC payments larger for kids under 3. That cash could be used to pay for child care or to make it more affordable to stay home with the kids. There is also a broad range of middle-ground options where you would use the money to help defray the cost of relying on family members or informal child care arrangements. Even the existing CTC proposal is challenging to find enough money for, given Joe Manchin’s limited willingness to raise taxes, so I’m not saying BBB should include this supercharged parental payment.
But I’m an incrementalist. If you had a good program for cash assistance to parents in place, then you could build on it over time to start addressing other needs like childcare.
That being said, when I have argued before that the expanded CTC will not induce people to drop out of the labor force, I am making an empirical prediction based on evidence from other programs. If you make the CTC bigger specifically in order to cover the child care costs of the youngest children, then that is going to change. Many parents would take the bonus money and use it to defray child care costs. But others — especially people with low-wage jobs and limited career ladders — will take the money and stay home with their kids. And that seems fine to me. But it’s currently perceived as politically dicey, and it’s not in line with Democrats’ goal to create a program that raises labor force participation.
Democrats’ goals: promote work and raise pay
Democrats have written a bill that, WWII-style, subsidizes child care rather than the cost of parenting, which might include child care.
They’ve also explicitly put a work requirement into the bill. Some people think of preschool and child care as two different names for the same thing, but Democrats make a clear distinction in their proposal. Their preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds has no means-testing and no work requirement because they believe it is an educational intervention for the benefit of children that as many people as possible should enroll in. Their childcare program for 0-2 is a benefit to help working parents. If you make too much money, you don’t get it because you don’t need the help. And if you’re not working or engaged in appropriate job-seeking activities, you don’t get it because you don’t deserve the help.