Magazine article The American Prospect

Has Child Care Policy Finally Come of Age? the Democrats May Now Be Turning to a Long-Stalled Agenda for Working Parents

Magazine article The American Prospect

Has Child Care Policy Finally Come of Age? the Democrats May Now Be Turning to a Long-Stalled Agenda for Working Parents

Article excerpt



New York University Press


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 ran out of private homes or other unregulated services. …

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