This week, The New York Times’ editorial staff ran yet another piece in support of Hillary Clinton’s child care proposal. Only, in the latest iteration, Brittany Bronson, an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, complains that Clinton’s proposal to expand child care and cap costs at 10 percent of household income doesn’t go far enough. As the mother of two young children, I read Bronson's appeal for more government intervention in child care and wanted to yell, “Stop!”
Bronson cites “a report from the Economic Policy Institute, [that found] annual infant care in 33 states now costs more than a year’s tuition at a public university.” That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that having the government intervene will cut costs for families, improve the quality of children’s care, or offer parents a solution they find appealing.
First, for the sake of some historical perspective, according to The Wall Street Journal, “The average middle-income, two-parent household spent 18 percent of its budget on education and child care in 2013, up from 2 percent in 1960.” As for the college comparison that Bronson, like Hillary Clinton, cites, it is problematic, to say the least.
During her presentation at the Network of Enlightened Women’s recent national conference, which I attended, Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation, noted that the federal government currently spends $238 billion annually to finance higher education. Burke also explained that according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “for every $1 increase in federally subsidized student loans, tuition increases by 70-cents.” So, while not every student benefits from federally subsidized loans, every family feels tuition increases.
In spite of the government largesse directed at education, Burke observed, “the six-year graduation rate is 60 percent, the four-year graduation is less than 40 percent, and there are 514 colleges and universities in the country where students have a greater chance of defaulting [on their student loans] than graduating, according to research from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.” Given this track record, why would anyone want the federal government pumping more money into child care? And why should parents believe that child care costs will decline, rather than rise “at least twice as fast as the rate of inflation” as they have in higher education since 1980?
More importantly, Bronson’s New York Times op-ed, like Clinton’s speech, relies on an underlying assumption that all women want to be working full-time, but that’s an oft-repeated fairy tale. The Pew Research Center released a report in 2013 that found:
Nearly half of mothers (47%) in 2012 said that their ideal situation would be to work part-time. The share was 50% in 2007 and 44% in 1997. Among mothers who currently work full time, many would rather not. About 44% say that working part time would be their ideal situation, 9% say not working outside the home would be ideal. Only about half (46%) of full-time working mothers consider their current situation ideal.
Beyond that macro view, individual families vote with their feet, regularly arranging their lives in the way that makes the most sense to them. For a not insignificant number of homes, especially those with young children, that means having one parent at home. As IFS Senior Fellow, W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out in his recent National Review piece:
Today about one-quarter of married families have a parent at home, more than one-third of married families with young children have a parent at home, and an even larger share of married families will have a parent step out of the workforce for several months to care for the children.
My family is among that cohort. My husband and I decided years ago that it was worth the financial sacrifice to have me stay home with our children. So, my primary daily responsibility is caring for both of our girls. I also write part-time, but always around their schedules.
Even if the federal government offered full-time day care for all young children, I’d still prefer to be home with my girls.
Finding the right balance between child care and writing took some trial and error early on. When our first daughter was born, I took on some large client projects. Since the rest of our family lives out of town, those projects necessitated babysitting help, sometimes for days at a time. However, since we didn’t have a steady babysitter, we often ended up with strangers, or near strangers, sent by a local babysitting service. I quickly learned how problematic that could be. Even with a daughter who thrives on meeting new people and finds something to love about everyone, it was painfully clear that not all babysitters were equal, nor were many a good fit for our family.
I also learned through experience that if my daughter were with babysitters more than about 20 hours per week, her demeanor changed radically. Rather than being her usual exuberant self, she’d be anxious and fussy by the end of a day with various babysitters. Our family’s experience reflected the results of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development survey, which found serious behavioral changes in many young children, depending on how much time they spent away from their mothers.
Given that the whole point of my staying home had been to prioritize our daughter, I began taking on smaller or less time-sensitive projects and writing more freelance articles. That has worked much better for us. I still have an outlet for my writing, but my girls know that they are my top priority, and that keeps everything calmer and happier at home.
My family’s solution wouldn’t work for every family, but a top-down child care policy from the federal government seems doomed to fit no family well. Contrary to what Hillary Clinton believes, even if the federal government offered full-time day care for all young children, I’d still prefer to be home with my girls. I’ve seen first-hand the difference it makes for my own children, and at least for my family, my not working full-time is well worth the financial sacrifice. I suspect there are many other parents like me, who would like a child care solution as tailored to their families as their cell phone apps are to the rest of their lives.
If Hillary Clinton wants to do something truly revolutionary, she’ll need to find a way to make child care policy more organic and customized. Top-down government policies are not only absurdly expensive and rarely effective, they’re also oh, so twentieth century.