In an atypical election it’s not surprising voters are hearing about atypical policy issues. And this year both candidates have been spending more time than usual talking about accessing affordable, quality child care.
While the issue of child care doesn’t often come up on polls, “the economy,” consistently ranks as voters leading concern. And when researchers dig down into what about the economy, respondents point to jobs, income inequality, and rising prices. “The economy” is a catch-all term for how people feel they’re doing – it’s a reflection of affordability and opportunity for upward mobility. And for families, child care is a major part of that equation.
American households today look starkly different from generations past. While in 1975 more than half of children were cared for by a full-time, stay-at-home parent, today that number is less than one-third. What’s more, the Pew Research Center recently found that only 23 percent of working mothers would choose to work full-time if they had the choice. This is not to say that women don’t enjoy or want exciting careers outside of the home – many of course do – but it reminds us that plenty of women aren’t working to satisfy an intellectual itch, but to pay the bills. And many families today require two incomes, meaning child care isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.
When lawmakers (especially progressive politicians like Hillary Clinton) talk about how to help working families better afford quality child care, however, they focus almost entirely on helping pay for institutional daycare facilities. There have been proposals to infuse daycare centers with more funds so (in theory) families would have to pay less – but we’ve seen how “well” that works with college tuition subsidies. And there have been calls for mandates to provide on-site daycare at businesses – certainly a regulatory nightmare for businesses and overlooks that many parents would prefer a different child-care arrangement.
These government interventions would distort the child-care marketplace, drive up costs, limit choices, and place undue burdens on businesses. What’s more they won’t actually help a whole lot of working families who don’t—and don’t want to—rely on formal daycare arrangements. In fact, fewer than 25 percent of families with young children currently use an organized daycare facility. Many families still make financial sacrifices to keep one parent at home, and others rely on a grandparent or another family member to help out.
And there’s a good reason why so many families prefer to have loved ones look after their young children rather than using paid daycare. As IWF’s Carrie Lukas has written, research suggests that daycare is far from “neutral” – that there are certainly negative impacts to consider. That’s why when we are crafting legislation, it is worth considering the value of family members who forgo pay to care for children and the elderly. And we ought to do more to consider how government can ease the financial burden for these families, too.
Washington can help working families by consolidating existing child-care spending and credits and returning those resources to families so they can make the decisions that work best for them, whether that’s a daycare center or a grandparent. By returning funds to families we would eliminate the government bias against stay-at-home parents, while streamlining government programs, and simplifying the tax code.
What’s more, states have the opportunity to rollback burdensome regulations that don’t actually impact quality of care. Caretaker-child ratios and group sizes, for instance, sound nice, but are often costly to implement and studies suggest fail to improve the quality of care received by children. Better to free up daycare providers to invest in areas they see as most necessary, such as fewer, better trained professionals.
And lawmakers can make it easier for families to save for early and lifetime education by expanding tax-preferred accounts like 529s, which nearly 11 million Americans already take advantage of for higher education savings. (See more on all of this in IWF’s Working for Women report.)
The good news is that Americans are very much open to a shift in policy – and one that puts more ownership and control in the hands of families. In fact, in a randomized controlled messaging trial that the Independent Women’s Forum recently conducted with Evolving Strategies we discovered that without any additional information respondents were overwhelmingly supportive of child-care tax credits and deductions (70 percent). And when respondents learned about how burdensome daycare center regulations drive up costs without improving quality, support for tax credits went even higher to almost 80 percent.
Also significant is that Americans are skeptical about direct payouts to families (40 percent). More and more Americans understand that progressive policies that promise the moon often come with substantial tradeoffs. With just a small amount of information about some of the downsides of subsidizing daycare, support for less government spending increases by 12-points.
The bottom line is that politics is personal. Certainly “the economy” matters to people; but what really matters is what’s buried in that word – finding affordable child-care solutions so that parents can comfortably leave young children when they need to go to work. All families aren’t the same – and their child-care choices aren’t going to be the same either. Americans want government to take a backseat and give families the resources and control over their child-care choices so they can make decisions that work best for their family.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, which just released a new video on childcare policies today.