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A New Deal for Day Care

Can America change the way it takes care of kids?

Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

Most Americans have long considered child care to be a personal problem rather than a collective one. But times have changed. Today, nearly eight million families pay nannies, day care centers, or some other provider to watch over their children, according to census data. This shift, from parental to professional care, has not been a happy one economically: Annual costs can easily reach tens of thousands of dollars, outpacing what families typically spend on food and, in many states, housing or even public college tuition. In Massachusetts, for example, where child care costs are some of the highest in the country, a parent with an infant spends an average of $20,125 each year on day care; freshman-year tuition at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, runs only $14,596. The expense doesn’t necessarily result in good care: Fewer than 10 percent of day care centers, according to a 2006 survey, have well-trained and well-educated providers, who read books aloud to children, respond to them, ask questions, and encourage their development.

That’s for the parents who can even get professional child care. Large stretches of the United States are considered “child care deserts,” where day care centers either don’t exist at all or are in such demand that there are more than three times as many kids as available spots. Take Minnesota, a state with one of the most intense child care shortages in the country; in the Twin Cities, more than a million people live in one of these deserts—roughly two-thirds of the population. It’s even worse in the state’s rural areas: The numbers reach as high as 84 percent. Across Minnesota, there are more than four children for every available day care center slot.

Fifty years ago, this situation would have essentially been unthinkable: In 1970, about half of all American mothers stayed home to care for their children. But today, the vast majority of parents, men and women, want to work outside the home; yet too often they can’t—because they can’t afford care for their children. In 2016, nearly two million parents with kids age five and younger had to quit, turn down a job, or significantly change their work because of child care problems. Women are often the hardest hit. Since the 1980s, as child care costs have climbed 70 percent, working mothers’ labor force participation rate has declined 13 percent.

The extent of the economic damage has forced politicians from both parties to alter their views of child care. Within the last five years, some Republicans, who have typically hewed to traditional ideas about families and households, have adopted more modern ideas about how to help parents find care for their children: During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump put forward a plan that he said would tackle the high cost of child care via a tax deduction. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have also called for expanding tax breaks to help with the price parents pay.

But a tax deduction is a very long way from a comprehensive solution, given the cost and the struggle to find adequate care. There is a growing willingness to address the problem, though, which leaves Democrats with an opening to put forward something better. But in September, when the party unveiled the child care plank of its “Better Deal” agenda, it consisted of a punishing maze of technical details. To qualify, a parent would first have to look up her state’s median income—about $80,000 in Maryland; less than $42,000 in Mississippi—and then calculate 150 percent of that number. If she fell below the threshold, she would be asked to put 7 percent of her annual income toward child care. If she made it past the technicalities, she might realize it wasn’t all that much better a deal, either: Democrats ended up excluding parents who make too much to qualify or can’t afford their share of the cost, keeping down the total price tag but failing middle-class families that need help. In Maryland, for example, a single mother who qualifies for help would still pay more than $5,500 a year; if her income were above the cutoff, she’d get nothing at all.

Lawmakers could instead institute a system that would make high-quality child care available to all American families, for the entire working day, at a price that they could actually afford. Fanciful as that may sound, this basic standard already exists in many developed countries. In France, parents can take advantage of a network of government-run day cares when their children turn three months old. The centers are open most of the workday and charge based on a sliding scale that corresponds to parental income. France also requires at least half of its providers to have a degree in early education. Once children reach age three, they’re guaranteed a spot in the country’s universal preschool program until the age of six, and more than 95 percent of kids are enrolled. In other words, French parents are all but guaranteed to find a quality, affordable place for their kids while they work.

To ensure this kind of care, France spent about 27 billion euros, or just over $33 billion, in 2013—about 1.3 percent of its GDP. We remain embarrassingly far behind; the United States spends less on child care and early childhood education than all other developed countries except Turkey, Latvia, and Croatia.

These disparities are well-known. What is less well-known is that U.S. lawmakers don’t have to look to Europe for a workable child care system—an American model already exists. During World War II, as women went to work in factories, President Franklin D. Roosevelt built a nationwide network of public child care centers. They were open 12 hours a day, year-round, at a cost of just about $10 a day in today’s dollars, regardless of income. Every state but New Mexico had them.

They were highly successful. For each additional $100 a state spent on centers, children who were enrolled later saw a 1.8 percentage point increase in earnings and a 0.7 percent increase in their employment rate. Other research found that for every three years boys were enrolled, they earned 6 percent more by the age of 60 and were significantly more likely to have graduated from college. The centers also helped mothers. Each dollar in spending meant they could work more and longer hours, bringing home more money. And they loved it. In exit interviews in California, women gave the centers a nearly 100 percent satisfaction rating. But despite pleas from parents and advocates, President Truman shuttered them when the war ended.

The country nearly enacted a similar program in 1971, but then special assistant Pat Buchanan helped author President Richard Nixon’s scathing veto of bipartisan legislation, calling a child care bill “truly a long leap into the dark for the United States Government and the American people.” It was communism, Nixon said, and it would destroy families. That vitriol politicized the idea of day care, poisoning the debate for decades. When Barack Obama floated the idea of universal preschool in 2013, House Speaker John Boehner said getting the government involved was “a good way to screw it up.” Three years later, the Republican Party platform committee initially included language explicitly opposing universal child care because it “inserts the state in the family relationship in the very early stages of a child’s life.”

This language feels deeply outdated today. The model of a working father and a stay-at-home mother who cares for their children has largely disappeared, falling from 46 percent of families in 1970 to about a quarter in 2015. The day care panic of the 1980s and ’90s—when parents fretted over satanic rituals at centers (at the McMartin family’s Manhattan Beach, California, preschool, operators were accused of not just sexual abuse but also witchcraft, in a widely viewed trial that lasted seven years in the 1980s), and the media debated the impact that a working mother might have on her child’s psyche—has vanished with it, replaced by a national consensus that high-quality care at early ages yields significant benefits for children. Nearly 90 percent of voters—both Republicans and Democrats—support quality, affordable care for young children, according to the bipartisan advocacy group the First Five Years Fund.

There are many proposals for how to provide that care, but a universal program would be the most effective and durable. Social Security was designed so that every American had to pay in and every American got a check when they retired. That system is now so entrenched it is almost sacrosanct, despite continual efforts by Republicans to “reform” it out of existence. More broadly, Social Security showed what good government could do and how efficient it could be. A targeted, technocratic program, of the sort proposed in the Better Deal, is in danger of falling prey to stereotypes about failed Big Government—digging up documents to prove that you’re eligible, going to appointments to argue you should stay enrolled, repeating the whole process annually or even monthly. Such bureaucracy discourages people from signing up in the first place and breeds resentment from those just above the cutoff. A child care program for everyone isn’t just a smart investment in parents, children, and our economy, it’s the smartest way to deliver it.