Has Child Care Policy Finally Come of Age?

AP Photo/Brett Flashnick

A soldier visits her son at a day-care facility at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The 1989 Military Child Care Act created a system of child-care centers with features civilian parents can only dream of. 

In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy
By Elizabeth Palley and Corey S. Shdaimah
288 pp. New York University Press $30

The Democratic Party is now turning to a new agenda for parents: not just an expanded earned income tax credit and child tax credit, but also paid family leave, universal preschool, and free community college. President Barack Obama encapsulated the message in his 2015 State of the Union address when he asserted that “affordable, high-quality child care … [is] not a nice-to-have—it’s a must-have.” He even made the children-as-social-good argument that’s been missing from the American discussion of family policy: “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” The question now is whether, at long last, the United States will be ready to make progress on child care policy.

For the past four decades, even as the majority of women with small children have gone to work outside the home, the United States has done almost nothing to address the problems that parents face. The country has no universal child care policy, or paid family leave, or paid sick leave, or maternity leave, or any of the other supports for parents that are common in other advanced industrial nations. American inaction on child care policy is all the more puzzling because of its effects on women and their potential power to make it an issue. Despite changes in work patterns, women remain responsible for the majority of child care responsibilities whether they are single parents or married. Women outnumber men in the voting booth. They earn more college degrees than men do. Although the American economy depends on women, the nation has not responded to their needs, and they have not used their votes or their voices to insist on a response.

If good, affordable child care is so great a need, why is there no national policy? And why, as Elizabeth Palley and Corey S. Shdaimah ask in their book, In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy, has there been no social movement for change?

One major problem, Palley and Shdaimah conclude from interviews with child care advocates and others, is the lack of a compelling way to frame the case for child care provision. Child care in the United States has always been understood as an individual, parental responsibility rather than as a social good. The model of K-12 education as a universal right never seeped down into care for younger children. From the 1970s through the 1990s, while child care was debated, public opinion was ambivalent. Many Americans thought it best for mothers to stay at home with young children even as economic necessity prevented them from doing so. Yet there was strong support for making work a condition of assistance for mothers on welfare, partly because of lingering suspicions about their suitability as parents. In addition, allowing welfare recipients to stay at home while middle-class mothers went to work had become politically untenable.

As a result, the United States has some government-provided child care for the poor, and has left everyone else to secure private services on their own. For the poor, the shortage of slots is acute. Despite the work requirement in the 1996 welfare legislation, low funding levels have limited subsidized child care to one-fifth of the nation’s poor children. The shortage of slots forces many low-income women to rely on informal caregiving arrangements that raise serious concerns about the children’s safety and well-being. Middle-class families have some child care costs covered by employer benefits and tax subsidies, but the employer programs are limited and the value of federal tax subsidies has lagged the rapidly rising cost of child care. Like the poor, some middle-class families also put their kids in family day care run out of private homes or other unregulated services. The degree of regulation varies substantially by state; federal day-care standards were quashed by the Reagan administration.

From these fragmented arrangements, Palley and Shdaimah argue, arises the second major barrier to a social movement for public provision of child care: sharp divisions among child care advocates about strategies and goals. While some advocates focus on the needs of the poor, others call for early-education programs for all four-year-olds. They argue that emphasizing education and extending the universal K-12 education model to the preschool set is a more feasible goal that both skirts public ambivalence about paid care for younger children and capitalizes on the states’ traditional responsibility for education. Yet others argue for higher regulatory standards of child care at the state or federal levels.

Each of these approaches has its shortcomings. An emphasis on child care for lower-income families is laudable, as their needs are often most severe. But millions of middle-class families have two earners and need help with child care as well. Early-education programs are attractive, but they typically run three to four hours per day and not during the summer, failing to match work schedules. The one frame that no advocacy group appears to champion is the broad and simple idea that “many families with working parents need help.”

Palley and Shdaimah’s book is at its best in revealing the tensions among child care advocates, but their analysis lacks two elements that would help explain the puzzling absence of a social movement. First, we rarely hear the voice of parents. While Palley and Shdaimah cite public opinion data, they might have asked parents what they want and analyzed why they haven’t mobilized to demand child care. This is the strategy that sociologist Sandra R. Levitsky pursues in addressing an analogous puzzle: Why is there no social movement for provision of long-term care in the United States? The only public provision of long-term care is through the means-tested Medicaid program, which forces elders to spend down to poverty to qualify. Faced with a choice between Medicaid and costly private services, many adult children care for their disabled elders themselves, with only scattered help from a few state and local programs and no paid leave for caregivers or tax credits to offset the financial burden. In her book Caring for Our Own: Why There Is No Political Demand for New American Social Welfare Rights (2014), Levitsky finds that the split of policy responsibilities across levels of government stymies political activity: Where would caregivers press their claims—at the local, state, or federal level? She also finds that caregivers don’t even know what programs would help or what to argue for. I suspect that similar dilemmas confront parents who might otherwise fight for better child care policy.

The other missing element in Palley and Shdaimah’s analysis is a comparative perspective on the origins of child care policies. In her 2006 book Working Mothers and the Welfare State, Kimberly J. Morgan argues that differences in child care policies among Western industrialized nations are better explained by the role of organized religion in politics than by such factors as the strength of the political left or the rate of women’s employment. Morgan finds that in countries such as France and Sweden, where religious authorities have been “subordinated to secular state ones,” the state has played a more active role in family policy. In contrast, where organized religion has played a more significant political role, as in the Netherlands and the United States, religious forces have succeeded in generating more opposition to shifting gender roles and the creation of government family policy. As more mothers took paid jobs in all of these countries during the 1960s and 1970s, the responses of governments were different. France and Sweden adopted national policies such as full-day care and preschool programs that facilitated women’s work. In contrast, the Netherlands maintained policies designed around the male-breadwinner model of the family (with more recent reforms still only encouraging part-time work for mothers), and the United States has encouraged private-sector rather than government solutions.

American child care policy has faced two uphill battles: opposition by economic conservatives to increased public spending and opposition by social conservatives to government policies they see as disadvantaging families with stay-at-home mothers. The ubiquitous fiscal argument comes as no surprise. The views of the social conservatives are more interesting. Social conservatives prefer policies that help all families, such as higher standard deductions on taxes, while objecting to policies such as child care tax credits for working families, which these conservatives claim discriminate against traditional families. Republicans have had to tread a thin line, as economic reality means that large proportions of Republican voters are from two-earner households. After conservatives objected to an increase in the dependent care tax credit under Ronald Reagan in 1981, the next round of tax reform in 1986 nearly doubled the personal exemption, a policy that helps all families whether or not women have paid jobs.

Policies facilitating women’s work almost always come from Democratic lawmakers. As Morgan notes, Democrats have secured some aspects of the feminist agenda such as anti-discrimination laws but have encountered conservative opposition on programs that require more spending by government or business. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have provided universal, federally funded pre-kindergarten education. The main policy innovations adopted in this arena since the 1970s have been the tax breaks for dependent care and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. Although much heralded at the time, the 1993 law provides only unpaid leave and does not apply at all to nearly half of American workers.

The private model of child care arising from this confluence of forces has had enormous political consequences. First and foremost, private provision undercuts the constituency for policy change. As Morgan argues, the private welfare model is “politically self-reinforcing.” The tax subsidies, incomplete though they are, have helped the middle class afford child care. The system “works” in the sense that the number of child care centers doubled between 1982 and 1997. Middle-class and upper-income women can often get short-term parental leave from employers as well. These partial measures make it difficult to assemble a broad coalition for change.

Second, the private model is facilitated by low pay and lax regulatory policies. The private market works only because of the availability of a low-wage workforce. Child care workers—one of the worst-paid groups in American society—receive few employee benefits and have high turnover rates. As Morgan notes, the poor treatment of child care workers harms minorities, who make up a disproportionate share of child care workers. And as sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway argues in her 2011 book Framed by Gender, the low pay of child care workers devalues both women’s care work in general and the paid work of the women for whom they are pinch-hitting.

The politically self-reinforcing private model has wider significance for economic inequality. Higher-income women are more likely to have maternity leave and other benefits at work and can afford better child care for their offspring. These advantages allow them to invest in their own careers and their children. In contrast, lower-income and minority children are more likely to be exposed to informal, poor-quality care, further stacking the societal deck against them.

The private child care model also undermines women’s full participation in work. The same proportion of women work in the United States as in Europe. American women, however, are more likely to work part time, and in the United States part-time workers typically have lower wages and fewer benefits than full-time workers do. Almost all of the gender gap in pay between men and women is due to working mothers.

The United States has not always been unresponsive to the needs of families when women have gone to work. During World War II, the nation provided child care to the women who flocked to factory jobs while their husbands were away. Of course, when those jobs evaporated after the war, so did the day-care centers. A more contemporary example of public provision of child care also comes from a national-security context. As Palley and Shdaimah detail, the 1989 Military Child Care Act created a system of child care centers with features civilian parents can only dream of. The centers must meet Defense Department certification standards for quality; workers are trained and receive full benefits and wages on par with other military salaries; and parents pay on a sliding scale. The system isn’t perfect—there are waiting lists, just as on the outside—but the example shows that when women must work, we manage to summon effective child care.

Perhaps the personal experience of lawmakers themselves will illuminate the value of more effective work-family policies. Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, recently wrote to Senate offices to ask how they handle parental leave for staff members. As she reported in The New York Times, all of the fifteen Democrats, two independents, and nine Republicans who responded offered paid leave. In fact, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida offered as much paid maternity and parental leave as independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, told Senior that with paid leave her staffers “do their job well. They’re not preoccupied, they’re not worrying about everything that’s happening at home when they’re at work.” As a Republican, of course, Fischer rejects requiring businesses to offer paid leave, but her own experience confirms what sociologists Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman found in a study of California’s paid family and medical leave: Paid leave reduces employee turnover and increases morale. It’s good for the employer too.

Democrats are now making that case: Child care policies that help working parents help business as well. But that is a bonus. The core of the argument for child care policies is that they enable parents to deal with today’s economic realities and contribute to the well-being of children. After decades of inaction, the United States may finally be ready to give child care the priority it deserves.  

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