Senator Elizabeth Warren argues for her sweeping new government child-care program in personal terms. Invoking her days as a young working mom struggling to find reliable, quality child care for her two children, she explains that she wants to spare today’s young families similar stress.
Her story does reveal the stakes of the child-care debate — but not in the way she thinks.
Warren’s tale of unappealing day-care centers and unreliable babysitters has a happy ending. In a recent interview with the lifestyle website Romper, she described how she broke down on the phone while talking to her widowed Aunt Bee from Oklahoma about the challenges of balancing work and family life. Bee gave a life-changing response. “She said, ‘Well, I can’t get there tomorrow. But I can come on Thursday,’” recalls the presidential candidate. “And she arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy, and stayed for 16 years.”
Not everyone has a family member like Aunt Bee who can step up, move across the country, and fill child-care needs for more than a decade. But extended families, friends, and neighbors do play a tremendous role in providing care to children around the country. Unfortunately, that’s a fact that Senator Warren’s child-care plan not only overlooks but would change, by discouraging the use of family caregivers.
Warren proposes equal child-care options at qualified day-care centers for all families regardless of income. Those families with higher incomes would pay a subsidized fee, and those with household incomes below about $50,000 would be covered by the federal government. Her plan also would provide subsidies, so that no family spent more than 7 percent of its income on child care.
The costs of this proposal are considerable: Economists for Moody’s Analytics estimated that it would require $70 billion per year, a sum Warren plans to cover by imposing a wealth tax on households with assets exceeding $50 million. It’s tempting to criticize the economics: Enormous subsidies for child care would encourage day-care centers to jack up their prices, such that the burden on taxpayers would continue to grow; a wealth tax would have far-reaching economic impacts as those affected by it moved their assets overseas, depriving the economy of capital; and the effects of less investment would trickle down to harm businesses, customers, and everyday workers.
Yet the economic problems aren’t the main reason to oppose the plan. Far more important would be its harmful impact on families and communities.
By making day-care centers free or very low-cost, Warren’s plan would induce more families to rely on formal child-care providers. Currently, while most families with young children have child-care needs, only a minority of them use formal day-care centers. As of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 60 percent of mothers with children under age six worked outside the home. But Pew Social Trends reported that just shy of half (48 percent) of children under age six with working parents were enrolled in preschool or day care as of 2015. Nearly as many (45 percent) depended on family members other than parents to take care of them, and a nanny or babysitter looked after 16 percent.
Many of these extended-family caregivers were likely living in the same home as the young children they were helping to raise. That’s an underdiscussed reality of today’s family life: Pew Research Center reports that just 12 percent of households were multigenerational in 1980, but that number has risen across all racial groups. Today, an estimated one in five Americans live in a multigenerational household.
There are many reasons that different generations end up living in the same household, and not all are positive: a parent’s addiction problem that leaves grandparents caring for young children; adult children’s inability to find employment that enables them to leave home; an elderly family member’s disability that requires extensive care. But Warren ought to know firsthand that these multigenerational living situations can also be beneficial, both for young families that benefit from having more caregivers and for the older caregivers, who remain more engaged and engrained in family life than they would be on their own.
Such relationships would be undermined by a government program that enabled families to replace family caregivers, whether stay-at-home parents or other relatives, at no cost. If government foots the bill for a day-care program, especially one that’s been stamped “high quality” by a federal agency, then there is no clear reason for Aunt Bee to help out, for Mom or Dad to stay home, or for a grandparent to watch the new baby. Government will have taken over that responsibility from the family.
Currently, parents don’t rely on family members for child care just because they offer free labor. While cost is certainly a factor, most parents also believe that their children are better off when they are cared for by someone who has a lasting interest in their well-being.
In 2014, Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans think it is best for children if at least one parent stays home. The research organization Public Agenda surveyed parents with children five and younger in 2000 and found that nearly two out of three (63 percent) disagreed with the statement “A top-notch day care center can provide care as good as what a child would get from a stay-at-home parent.” That same research found that four out of five young mothers (ages 18–29) said they would rather stay home to care for their children than work full-time.
But even if many parents believe that kids are generally better off when cared for at home by a loved one, it will be hard for many to resist the temptation to take advantage of a taxpayer-funded child-care service once the government has established it.
In Quebec’s experience with government child care provides a useful example of what we could expect under Warren’s proposal. In 2000, Quebec introduced $5-a-day child care for all children. This dramatic shift in policy — which led to an increase in child-care use of more than one-third — provides researchers with rich data to explore.
As Steven Rhoads, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia, and I detailed in National Affairs earlier this year, over more than a decade, several well-respected studies have found that Quebec’s child-care policy has led to a host of negative outcomes, including increased family stress, increased aggressiveness and anxiety and worse health outcomes among children, worse parenting, reduced mental health and relationship satisfaction among adults, and even a rise in criminality.
These studies challenge the popular idea that day care is good for children’s social, educational, and other outcomes. In making such claims, media tend to cherry-pick favorable findings while overlooking other research — much of it more intensive — suggesting that day care, especially when used long-term and for the youngest children, is associated with negative outcomes. Academics should continue to explore the impact of day care on individual children, families, and communities. Yet the available findings, along with parents’ stated preferences, ought to discourage lawmakers from enacting policies — such as the one advanced by Senator Warren — that would create a tremendous financial incentive to replace family-based care with day care.
Opposing Senator Warren’s plan to heavily subsidize day-care centers doesn’t mean that nothing should be done for families with young children, including those that use day care.
Currently, day-care centers are very expensive, and they are often more expensive than they need to be. According to Care.com in 2018, a third of families spent 20 percent or more of their total household income on child care. Infant care in a day-care center routinely costs more than $1,000 a month, and in some major cities it can be nearly twice that.
One factor contributing to day care’s high costs is government regulation. Economists at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center conducted an analysis of how regulations affect day-care cost and quality. They found that regulations favored by many governments because compliance is easy to monitor — such as limiting child–staff ratios and group sizes — have failed to improve quality of care but significantly raised costs. The study concludes, “Eliminating regulatory standards that do not affect the quality of care while focusing on those that do . . . will improve the quality of child care while making it more affordable to low-income families.”
Senator Warren should keep this in mind. She refers to “high quality” day-care centers, but the government has a poor record of adopting rules that actually lead to high-quality environments for children. Rather than layering on regulations, policymakers should eliminate those that aren’t useful and that needlessly raise costs.
The 2017 tax cut increased child tax credits, but policymakers concerned about the burden on young families could consider increasing them still more. Lawmakers could also target increases for families with children ages five and younger, since those families tend to face the biggest financial strains. Such relief would help all families, regardless of the kind and amount of child care they use.
Senator Warren doesn’t sound like she regrets that her aunt played such an important role in her family. And I’d bet that Aunt Bee, like so many family members who have stepped up to help loved ones with young children, took pride in that contribution and experienced joy in her close relationship with her grand niece and nephew. That’s something that government can’t replace and shouldn’t discourage.