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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Child-Care Problem

Elizabeth Dias is a TIME correspondent covering politics and religion.

'Across the U.S., families are struggling with this everyday need'

Meredith and Paul Tweed did their best to plan for parenting. They had successfully timed the birth of their first son, now 5, for the beginning of summer, since Meredith’s job as a university instructor did not offer paid maternity leave. When fall came, the Longwood, Fla., couple found an in-home child-care provider who charged $500 a month, half the cost of the nearby day-care center. But two years later, their monthly tab doubled when their second child was born. So they sold their town house and moved in with her parents for a year to save money. Meredith left teaching for an administration job with more earning potential. They bought a fixer-upper and canceled their cable—and they decided to have no more children. Child care was just too expensive.

Now, every month, the Tweeds spend $1,100 out of pocket for care for their kids while they work, just $28 less than they spend on their mortgage. Despite dual incomes, their child care costs nearly 17% of their $72,000 take-home income—more than twice as much as a year of tuition and fees at Florida State University. If the basic cost were not overwhelming enough, their older son Nathaniel was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. He needs specialist care that costs an additional $25 an hour, too much given his therapies and their health bills and car payments. They decided to postpone their student loans for the year and face higher interest rates later. “We can’t afford to do all these things all at the same time,” Meredith says. “Everything with a need comes first.”
Across the U.S., families are struggling with this everyday need. Nearly two-thirds of mothers with children under age 6 work, and families with a working mother spend nearly twice as much on child care as they did 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Census. In 33 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more to put an infant in day care than it does to pay in-state college tuition and fees at a four-year public school. It isn’t much cheaper for a 4-year-old. In every state, a month of child care for two kids costs more than the median rent. The U.S. remains the only nation in the 35-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, forcing many parents to forgo income. According to one study by the liberal Center for American Progress, parents give up $28.9 billion a year in wages to care for their children because of a lack of affordable child care and paid family and medical leave.

As a result, the politics of child care is undergoing a rapid transformation, moving quickly to the front of the debate for both Republicans and Democrats. Americans support free child-care and pre-K programs by more than 2 to 1, according to Gallup, and red and blue states alike are beginning to experiment with solutions. On the presidential campaign trail, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have game-changing plans to get the government to subsidize more of the cost, with prescriptions ranging from tax breaks to federal paid leave to universal pre-K education.

That doesn’t mean Congress is likely to pass a new law anytime soon. Both proposals are expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. But some change is likely coming. “The debate has fundamentally altered,” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a Clinton supporter. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been on this topic.”

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to respond to the needs of the changing workforce. When women flooded the domestic labor pool during World War II, the federal government heavily and nearly universally subsidized day-care centers, which cost parents less than $10 in today’s dollars for 12 hours of child care. That disappeared once the war ended. Congress approved a similar program during the feminist boom of the early 1970s, but President Richard Nixon vetoed it. The biggest lasting advance came in 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees employees of larger businesses 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical circumstances like childbirth or an ill family member. Small-government conservatives have often opposed child care as another entitlement, and much of the political capital on education has been spent on the high cost of college.

But this suite of family issues has been a pillar of progressive policies. Hillary Clinton has long advocated for leave reforms and early-childhood programs. On the campaign trail, she has proposed capping a family’s child-care expenses at 10% of its income, guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid leave if a worker has a new child or ill family member, offering universal preschool for 4-year-olds, expanding the child tax credit’s value for young children, and raising pay for child-care workers. Her efforts follow President Barack Obama’s proposal for universal preschool three years ago and his repeated calls for a tax credit of up to $3,000 per child per year, which would triple the maximum child-care credit for ­middle-class families.

The rise of Trump has helped elevate the issue. With his daughter Ivanka by his side in September, Trump announced that he would promote six weeks of paid leave for birth and adoptive mothers, a tax credit for child care and a new Dependent Care Savings Account whose balance could roll over year over year, even accounting for unborn children. Soon after, Ivanka met with Republican Congresswomen, including the highest-ranking female GOP leader in the House, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to discuss child care, equal pay and workplace flexibility.

It is an unusual move for a politician whose party platform does not even mention the topic, but Republican interest elsewhere is growing. Florida Senator Marco Rubio put forth a family-leave plan and a child tax credit in the primaries. In August, the ­conservative-leaning American Action Forum proposed a targeted benefit, modeled on the earned-­income tax credit, that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers who make under $28,000 a year. The conservative Independent Women’s Forum—from whose board Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway took a leave of absence to join his campaign—has been holding briefings for Republican members on Capitol Hill and is releasing child-care and paid-leave messaging kits this fall. “I think universal paid leave is a terrible idea, but I recognize that most women are working not because they have some intellectual itch to satisfy. It is because they have bills to pay,” says Sabrina Schaeffer, the group’s executive director. “We need to really take that seriously and come up with alternatives.”

Agreeing on the problem is one thing, but deciding how to pay for it is another. The Department of Health and Human Services considers 10% of family income the appropriate cap for affordable child care, but only families in two states are able to stay under that threshold. Child-care costs also vary greatly by region, adding different burdens to states. In Nevada, infant care in a center costs $9,800 a year—35% of the median income for a single parent, according to Child Care Aware of America. In Massachusetts, care for an infant and a 4-year-old is nearly $30,000 a year, or 110% of the median income for a single parent.

If the costs are a drain for the middle class, they are often an impossibility for the poor. The typical cost of a full-time nanny tops $28,000, which for a minimum-wage worker is 188% of income, according to analysis from New America and Care.com. South Dakota, where the average income is the sixth lowest in the nation, has the highest share of families where all parents work, but it ranks near the bottom in care availability. It does not help that child-care workers are among the lowest paid in the country.

States and cities have been stepping in to fill the gaps, though only five states have partial paid-leave programs. California expanded its six-week paid-leave program in April to ensure that low-wage workers receive 70% of their income, while higher-wage workers get 60%. San Francisco will begin to offer six weeks of full paid time off for new parents in 2017. New York will offer 12 weeks’ paid leave, capped at two-thirds of the state’s average weekly pay. Washington, D.C., where the cost of child care is more expensive than in the 50 states according to Child Care Aware, has proposed the most generous paid ­family-leave program in the country—16 weeks funded through a 1% payroll tax on employers.

Other parts of the country have opted for more targeted programs. The Texas state legislature approved Republican governor Greg Abbott’s $118 million investment in high-quality pre-K last year. In June, Philadelphia passed a new soda tax to raise millions of dollars to expand early-childhood education programs. Chicago launched a $17 million Pay for Success program in 2014 to expand early-­childhood education via private-investment social-impact bonds, whereby the city would pay back investors if goals, like kindergarten readiness, are achieved. Salt Lake County did something like that in 2013 to expand a high-quality preschool program, and Georgia recently launched a similar program for early-child health home visits. “There is much more creativity and initiative on the state level. This is bipartisan,” says Mark Shriver, president of Save the Children Action Network. “What you don’t have is the federal commitment.”

For voters in November, the issue will go beyond the top of the ticket. In Dayton, Ohio, there’s a proposal on the ballot to raise the income tax by 0.25% to fund a citywide universal pre-K. In nearby Cincinnati, the school board has for the first time put a tax on the ballot that would include expansion of pre-K programs for low-income children. An Oregon measure would raise the state’s corporate earning tax to expand state services including early-childhood education funding. A coalition of groups—­including Child Care Aware of America and unions like the American Federation for Teachers and the Service Employees International Union—have planned town halls and rallies in states and cities to discuss key child-care and early-education issues before voters head to the polls.

Details for Trump’s and Clinton’s proposals remain murky. Clinton has yet to articulate exactly how she would pay for the benefits. It is also unclear whether Trump’s plan applies to fathers or same-sex couples or how he plans to have a savings account for unborn children. Critics are concerned that Trump’s plan would increase incentives to hire men over women if it offers maternity but not paternity leave. Critics have also charged that a tax credit focuses too much of the benefit on affluent families, not those with low incomes who already pay no income taxes. Meredith Tweed is skeptical that a tax credit would help her pay her immediate bills. “The tax credit in the long run—” she says of paycheck-to-paycheck families, “they can’t even pay to get there.”

In the meantime, the Tweeds, like so many other families, look for ways to get by. Meredith is part of an invite-only Facebook group that has grown to 14,000 mothers who brainstorm about everything from how to pay for child care to how to handle diaper rashes. Her parents both still work, and while they rarely can help with child care, they pay for extras like gymnastics classes. Her son Nathaniel was able to join Early Steps, a state-run early-­intervention program for children with developmental delays, which allowed him to attend a free preschool for children with special needs. Eventually, he was mainstreamed for kindergarten. “In essence, I benefited from preschool, a universal sort of preschool,” Meredith says. “That intervention, and that system, ­really provided so much for our family.”

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