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Democrats should talk about child care costs in a broader way

Many parents have jobs, not careers — but the issue matters to everyone.

Democratic presidential candidates greet each other before a debate on January 14, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Child and family policy got a brief moment in the sun Tuesday night during a CNN Democratic debate when moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel observed that child care is a “huge expense for many new families and a problem especially acute in rural Iowa.” Despite the expense, she said, “many families don’t have the option of quitting a job because that income is needed.”

Some Democrats in the race have plans that could deliver significant and much-needed help to young families. This should be fertile policy terrain for the party to reach out to voters it needs, but several of the candidates delivered slightly odd answers in the debate that narrowed the problem and sold their own policies short.

Democrats are increasingly the party of college-educated professionals, and those who make it under the klieg lights of the debate stage are unusually ambitious and successful people. The pitch made on the stage was aimed directly at this group of voters, while missing the chance to reach women with moderately traditionalist worldviews, lower-income people who really need help from an activist government, and unmarried parents.

Government-funded child care can be an enormous help to people struggling to balance child-rearing responsibilities with their career aspirations. But as Pfannenstiel noted about rural Iowans in particular, child care is just a useful form of financial assistance to families with different structures and personal goals. It’s a mistake for career-oriented politicians to project their own set of priorities onto everyone else.

Democrats are too hung up on a niche situation

The debate question was directed initially at former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who began by saying he supported a greater federal role in providing subsidized child care. He explained why by observing that “until we do, this will be the biggest driver of the gender pay gap. When somebody like the voter has to step out of the workforce because of the reason, she is at a disadvantage when she comes back in. And [it] can affect her pay for the rest of her career.”

Buttigieg is correct in noting that the gender pay gap arises primarily because of parenting norms rather than just overt labor market discrimination. But the mechanism he is positing, where the high cost of child care leads women to drop out of the labor force, which leads to a lifelong earnings penalty even when they return, does not appear to be the central part of the story.

Instead, economist Claudia Goldin’s research shows, the big issue has to do with the structure of work expectations. In many professions, like law or finance, there are large financial returns to being able to drop everything at a moment’s notice and be at a client’s beck and call. This is incompatible with the reality that kids get sick, someone needs to go to parent-teacher conferences, and schools close randomly for a week in March. Whoever shoulders those responsibilities garners an earnings penalty, and that person is usually the mom.

This is a serious issue (for much more on it, see the Explained episode about the gender pay gap), but it doesn’t have that much to do with child care expenses.

More broadly, women dropping out of the workforce because they can’t afford child care may be a less common scenario than it seems. More common is probably the reverse, like in Pfannenstiel’s example — a parent who might prefer to stay home full time or part time but can’t afford to do so.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, following up on Buttigieg’s answer with her personal story, sketched out a worry similar to his.

“We went through one child care after another, and it didn’t work,” she said recounting her struggles as a young mother. “If I hadn’t been saved by my aunt, I was ready to quit my job. I think about how many women of my generation got knocked off the track and never got back on. How many of my daughter’s generation get knocked off and don’t get back on.”

This is obviously a real issue, especially for Warren’s generation. But while child care affordability impacts virtually all parents, the particular concern Warren is raising of child care expenses forcing a woman “off the track” of career success is a bit idiosyncratic.

One-third of children in the US have unmarried parents, for starters. Of the remaining two-thirds, many don’t have a parent who earns enough money that having the second parent drop out of the labor force would even be an option. Many others have a parent who stays at home because that’s what he or she prefers. And while lots of people have fulfilling careers that give them an important sense of meaning and identity, plenty of others are just doing a job to get by.

Democrats actually have policy ideas that would help all kinds of families, but they’re really just talking about one kind.

Subsidized child care means you have more money

If you’re the parent of a young child, the great thing about a federal program to subsidize child care costs is that it would give you more money.

If you have big career goals that are being pinched by child care costs, this helps you. You might not have been forced to drop out of the labor market otherwise. But with the cost of “ordinary” child care now defrayed by the government, you have more money to spend on hiring child care for times when inconvenient schedules lead to work/life balance conflicts (say, you and your spouse both need to work late one night because there’s a presidential debate, so you hire a babysitter).

But subsidized health care helps if you’d like to have a second or third kid but just don’t earn enough money to support a larger family. Or if you’re a single parent worried that you won’t be able to afford Christmas presents for your kids. It might even make it possible for you to work fewer hours per week and spend more time with your family.

The point isn’t that candidates should be singling out a particular thing as the one true goal of subsidized child care. But they are selling their policies’ merits short by portraying them as narrowly about preventing ambitious women from being pushed off the track into roles as stay-at-home moms.

Indeed, though nobody mentioned it Tuesday night — or, as far as I can recall, on other debate nights — virtually all Democrats in Congress have united around the idea of creating a universal child allowance that would give parents of young kids cash that they could use to address any of the many expenses of child-rearing in whatever way they see fit.

Democrats should try to win some traditionalist votes

One surprising thing, to me, about the way that dialogue played out is that many of my points could have been taken from a book Warren wrote years ago called The Two-Income Trap.

Warren’s point in that book was that for most families, putting all parents to work is not a lifestyle choice but a financial necessity driven by stagnating wages. But she argues that two-income arrangements create hidden financial instability because they also lock families into arrangements that feature high fixed expenses like child care.

The book earned praise from cultural conservatives, and in it, Warren goes out of her way to address cultural conservative concerns — arguing that child care subsidies should be structured to provide benefits to stay-at-home parents rather than operating as a straight transfer to working parents.

She also expresses anxiety about the future of childbearing in America: “If the word gets out that families with children are nearly three times more likely to collapse into bankruptcy will even more women decide not to have children?” This would be one way out of the trap. But the text denounces those who “view parenthood as nothing more than another ‘lifestyle choice,’ not so different from joining a commune or developing a passion for windsurfing.”

The argument is that society has an obligation to support parents and families so that people don’t opt to avoid childbearing.

In the time since the book was published, however, the fertility rate has dropped to a record low. That’s not because people have stopped wanting to have kids — it’s because people have stopped having as many kids as they say they’d ideally like. And when surveyed as to why, the No. 1 answer is the expense of child care.

In other words, the exact scenario Warren warned about has come to pass. And Democrats’ child care and child allowance ideas, especially if tweaked a little to be friendlier to stay-at-home-parents, could be a big part of the solution to a problem that traditionalist-minded people care about and that anti-tax, anti-spending conservatives simply can’t fix.