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Child care can cost a third of family income. Can Clinton get it down to 10 percent?

Hillary Clinton Meets With Hospital Workers At Anderson Cancer Center In NJ Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

In most states, child care for just one child costs more than in-state college tuition. In almost half of all states, child care costs more than the average rent payment.

That's why it's pretty significant that earlier this week, Hillary Clinton unveiled a major pledge to make child care more affordable. Specifically, she said that as president she will invest more in existing programs so that no family has to spend more than 10 percent of its income on child care.

Child care costs are not only sky-high, they're also rising twice as fast as inflation. And these costs hit lower-income families — especially families led by single mothers — the hardest.

Families that have employed mothers and are below the poverty level can expect to spend a whopping 36 percent of their income on child care, and that's just for one child. Families living below 200 percent of the poverty line spend about 20 percent.

Families living at or above the poverty level spend close to 9 percent of their household income on child care, based on 2011 data — which is within Clinton's target. But that's for all families with employed mothers, including those with two parents. Mothers who are at or above the poverty level spend an average of 22 percent of their income on child care.

Center for American Progress

Vivien Labaton, co-founder of Make It Work, an advocacy campaign for women's economic security, told Vox that the 10 percent income target, in particular, is "a clear delineation that we feel is incredibly important."

Clinton hasn't released many details of her child care plan yet. But she says she will:

  • Invest a whole lot more in child care subsidies and child care tax credits. Clinton didn't mention specific programs, but it's likely she'd focus on the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which subsidizes child care for low-income working families, and the child and dependent care tax credit.
  • Help child care workers earn a living wage by funding the states and communities that pay them more, with an initiative called RAISE (Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators).
  • Expand home visiting services, which send a social worker or nurse to help new mothers during and after pregnancy, to reach 2 million parents and children in the next 10 years.
  • Offer up to a million $1,500 scholarships for new parents in college, and expand on-campus child care to serve an additional 250,000 children.
  • Make pre-kindergarten universal for every 4-year-old.
  • Double the investment in Early Head Start programs.
  • Offer 12 weeks of paid family leave, paid for by taxes on the wealthy rather than a payroll insurance program like the FAMILY Act, which other Democrats have proposed.

Is all of this feasible?

Politically? Depends on Congress, which party controls which chamber, and whether Clinton could convince either chamber to pass any of this. So take that for what it's worth — but advocates see Clinton's proposal as a crucial first step.

"We think it’s incredibly exciting that Secretary Clinton has made this bold new goal a centerpiece of her campaign," said Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Is the 10 percent goal fiscally or logistically feasible? Sure. If we commit to spending enough on the CCDBG and child care tax credits, Labaton said.

It will definitely cost a lot. But the benefits will be worth it, advocates argue. The White House estimates that every dollar spent on high-quality preschool programs, for instance, yields about $8 later on in things like higher earnings.

Groups like Make It Work propose going even further — paying child care workers at least $15 an hour and guaranteeing universal pre-K for both 3- and 4-year-olds, for instance. But they're encouraged to see Clinton making these kinds of promises.

"It's the marker for the really big, bold child care solutions that are needed given the crisis that we have right now," said Make It Work senior policy adviser Julie Kashen.

One potential limitation is the supply of high-quality child care, which is already very scarce. Raising wages for child care workers — who make less than dog walkers or janitors right now — would help, since it reduces turnover and attracts more and better talent. But it's hard to say just how much it would help.

In any case, right now advocates and Democrats are focused more on boosting our existing child care infrastructure than on trying to create a new universal system from scratch. And they're trying to make sure conversations about child care are integrated with conversations about things like universal pre-K and paid family leave.

"It's easy to get caught up in issue policy silos," Labaton said. "But the issues people fall asleep worrying about aren't paid family leave over here, affordable child care over there. It really is an interconnected set of problems that people deal with on a day-to-day basis."