Democrats need an audacious child-care plan
If the Democrats' theme in 2020 will be "thinking big," allow me to add one other item to the list: child care.
Staying at home with young children or finding someone to do it for you remains an enormous strain on family budgets. As of 2015, the costs of care for an infant or a 4-year-old were at least 30 percent of one parent's full-time minimum wage income in every single state — and much higher in some cases. In almost half the states, the costs of child care outpace college tuition. And it's even worse if you're talking about infants. When the Economic Policy Institute looked at 10 major cities — including Chicago, Tampa, Detroit, Kansas City, and San Francisco — the costs of child care were over 10 percent of median family income in every single one. The Department of Health and Human Services identifies 10 percent as the cutoff for affordability.
In other words, it's a huge problem that grinds down huge numbers of Americans across all demographic groups, and pretty far up the socioeconomic ladder. (If you want to know why even people making six figures in big cities still feel they're falling behind financially, child care is a big reason why.)
So offering a big ambitious solution will appeal to a lot of voters.
What to do?
First off, we should just give parents the money they need. There are proposals among some Democrats to significantly expand the child tax credit to this end. That's a good idea, but trying to run these benefits through the tax code inevitably creates complications. What the government should do instead is just cut a no-strings-attached check to every family with a child. It's called a universal child allowance.
A recent proposal from the Century Foundation proposes a range of options, the most ambitious being $4,000 annually per child. This would cover about half the cost of child care in a fair number of states. It would be pricey at $200 billion a year, but Democrats could just point to the massive budget hole created by the GOP's tax boondoggle for the wealthy. Clearly, Republicans think we have room for more spending on some priorities. We could also save a lot of money by raising the benefit higher for lower-income families and tapering it off for richer Americans, as Canada does with its child benefit program.
A simple check also has the advantage of providing parents maximal freedom: They can spend the money on day care if they want. They can also stay home with their kids if they want. They could even spend it on diapers or baby food if they needed to.
But we shouldn't stop there. Given how many households do choose to rely on day care, we should also address the provision problem directly. The best route is to create a national public option for child care: a system of publicly run, professionalized day-care centers. The ideal would be for them to be free of charge. More modestly, we could simply aim to make these centers affordable by subsidizing a portion of their budgets with government spending. This would make sure families have at least one reasonable option for child care in their area, and provide competition to force private child-care services to up their game. The child allowance would also make sure there's more spending money floating around to support the private providers, too.
In fact, Finland already does something like this: It allows parents to take their child-care benefit as a check, use it to help pay for a publicly provided child-care service, or put it towards child care from the private sector.
The last piece of the puzzle is to do something about paid leave for new parents. The FAMILY Act proposed in 2017 is a good start here. It would create a national system, similar to how unemployment benefits work, that would give workers 66 percent of their income for 12 weeks while staying home with a newborn. It would be paid for with a modest hike in the payroll tax.
As the writer Steve Randy Waldman recently observed, "Political capacity is much more like muscle than gold, the more you use it the more you have." Advocating some big ideas will build the movements and organizations and imaginative space for other big ideas.
Jobs for all, health care for all, and child care for all: They all belong together.