Most Americans would agree: Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our children, especially during their first, most vulnerable years of life. On how best to ensure their safety and well-being, however, we vastly disagree.
That disagreement is understandable, because no two families are alike. But don’t tell that to President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats, whose childcare plan embraces a misguided one-size-fits-all approach.
After approving a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Congress is now moving full steam ahead with Biden’s nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better plan. Among the plan’s proposals is a costly new program that would use taxpayer dollars to fund one of the many child-care arrangements parents might use: daycare.
While millions of parents happily send their children to daycare every year, well over 60 percent of families choose an alternative arrangement that wouldn’t qualify for support from the government under the Democrats’ plan: a parent, a relative, a “cooperative” preschool, or a nanny. By subsidizing daycare and daycare only, Biden’s legislation would incentivize families to opt for that option over the other, more popular ones. It could also leave nannies with fewer jobs.
Within the 60 percent of households who use non-parental child care, approximately one in five children under the age of five are cared for in a private home by someone not related to them — commonly, a nanny. While private nannies were once thought of as the exclusive province of the wealthy, privileged class, a growing number of parents now use “nanny shares,” which make the cost more affordable by splitting the nanny’s salary between more than one family. Particularly for families with multiple children, a nanny now often makes the most economic sense.
The benefits of nanny arrangements are plenty, both for the nanny and the employer.
Parents can find someone who will work with their specific schedules, which may mean nights or weekends, rather than being wedded to the traditional 9-to-5 coverage. Now more than ever, personal stories and surveys signal that women value the ability to work a custom-tailored, flexible job, a freedom that nannies can allow them.
Meanwhile, nannies get the ability to negotiate directly with parents regarding hours, benefits, and terms of employment, which gives them a degree of control over their jobs that working at, say, a day-care center wouldn’t. Nannies are also in many cases free from licensing requirements and other burdensome government regulations. Rules such as Washington, D.C.’s requirement that day-care workers obtain a higher-education degree or professional certificate have a documented track record of squeezing qualified caregivers out of the labor market. In the case of nannies, parents, not the government, get to decide who is qualified to care for their children.
By heavily subsidizing child-care facilities subject to reams of government red tape, Democrats would put pressure on parents to choose daycare, potentially shutting out millions of loving nannies from the market, or leaving them with expensive-to-obtain jobs that they like less.
Beyond nannies, Biden’s child-care plan could also unintentionally harm children.
According to Erica Komisar, a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and author of the book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, infants fare best when cared for by a primary attachment figure, usually a mother.
“If a mother or another family member with a similar emotional investment in the baby cannot be there, the next best [thing] is a single surrogate (a nanny or babysitter) who becomes an alternative attachment figure for a baby,” Komisar told me. She added that a regular nanny “is far better for a neurologically fragile infant” than day care, which she argued “puts great stress on young children due [to] the premature separation from the source of their emotional security.”
Komisar’s warning is backed up by research, including a government study of Head Start, a federal program that provides care for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children from low-income families. The study found that the program had no academic benefits to children but did in some cases cause them emotional harm. Of course, plenty of children thrive in day-care centers. But the simple truth is that just 6 percent of parents say that day care is their preference, which makes Democrats’ insistence on subsidizing it to the exclusion of all other child-care options baffling.
It’s true that the costs of child care are burdensome, and some women feel they have no choice but to leave the labor market as a result. But rather than forcing taxpayers to fund a child-care arrangement that overwhelmingly isn’t parents’ first choice and could cause hard-working nannies to lose their jobs, policymakers should help all families with infants and young children by reducing tax and regulatory burdens and supporting strong, flexible labor markets so families can make the child-care decisions that they feel are best.