What could the Trump administration do to help working-class families?
Less than three weeks after the election, we conducted a focus group in a small town in southern Ohio to understand how white, working-class Millennials answer that question and more. What do they think about paid parental leave? Raising the minimum wage? Lowering childcare costs? Promoting childbearing within marriage? What are their priorities?
During two hours of frank and freewheeling conversation, participants1 first discussed the many challenges they face in their work and family life, and then they offered feedback on select policy proposals that might address those challenges. Importantly, we did not reveal which candidate or political party favored each proposal.
Overall, the group—comprised mostly of Donald Trump supporters—embraced an agenda that includes plans from both Republicans and Democrats, which we’ll explore in this first of a two-part series (Part 2 will run tomorrow). (Note: this series is based on our IFS report, Work-Family Policy in Trump’s America: Insights from a Focus Group of Working-Class Millennial Parents in Ohio.)
Throughout our discussion, participants echoed a common theme: they expect help and fairness from their employers and government in return for hard work, but their goal is economic independence. As one participant said, “Let us run our own lives.”
But they also pointed to many challenges on the path to economic independence.
Challenges to the American Dream
People described feeling angry and “screwed,” despite working hard. The American Dream is “almost impossible,” said one woman whose husband works full-time at a factory, while she works part-time at McDonald’s. Her family recently moved in with her father because they couldn’t afford rent.
“We hate living paycheck-to-paycheck,” a man who works as a sous-chef said, to nods and many “yeah’s” in the room.
“Rent is one of the worst things I’ve seen,” said his wife, a hospital registrar. She added, to lots of agreement, “And it’s so hard to get a loan to try and buy a house!”
Of the seven couples in the focus group, four said that they could not even envision owning a home within the next 10 years. In fact, only one couple owned a home. The other couples rented, lived in government-subsidized housing, or lived with relatives.
“And…we’re up to our eyeballs in student loans,” chimed in a stay-at-home mother who is studying medical billing and coding and hopes to re-enter the workforce in order to help pay the bills.
A few people complained that the more they work, the more they feel like they are penalized by the government in the form of more taxes coming out of their paycheck and less public assistance.
The woman who works part-time at McDonald’s said,
I was working three days a week just to help bring in extra money to our house. But then we looked at the income guidelines [for public housing] and realized that we wouldn’t qualify. I was making too much, so I had to cut back my hours. I can only work one day a week. Which seems so backwards to me!
“[Public] housing is completely wrong to me,” agreed one participant, whose girlfriend receives housing assistance. When you get a raise, he said, they make you pay more for rent, and it’s hard to get out of the “hole.” He added, “And you just got that raise, you just got on your feet, and now they’re kicking you while you’re down.”
Some mothers expressed frustration that they are not able to stay at home with their kids as much as they wish because they have to help bring in income. One mother, the hospital registrar, told us:
I work 3 p.m. – 11 p.m, [and] I literally get to see my five-year-old maybe half an hour a day, Monday through Friday. Like I literally cry myself to sleep sometimes when I get home at 11:30 or midnight because I haven’t seen my daughter.
The stay-at-home mom studying medical billing and coding explained,
As a mom, I feel very torn because his income making $12 an hour is not enough to make any kind of a living, and so I’m trying to get this job. But then at the same time my son has a few development delays and things, and so I really want to be home to help him with that, so it’s like, “What am I going to do?”
Her husband, a warehouse team leader who earns $12 an hour, described the toll it took on him:
I feel a little more pressure on myself because when [my wife] and I were talking about getting married that’s what I told her. I said, 'I will be the main provider, and if you want to work you can; if you don’t want to work, you cannot work.' And yet I feel like I have not been able to make that promise applicable, which makes me feel really bad.
Many participants described feeling distant from the American Dream.
“I really, really, really, really want to see more compromise in the world of government,” emphasized the warehouse team leader who supported Trump. He believes that the people who suffer the most from gridlock are ordinary people like himself, while politicians “dig in their heels” and try to please a “tiny group of supporters.”
“Yeah, the people have been lost,” added a woman who had planned to vote for Hillary Clinton, before changing her mind at the polling booth and voting for Trump. “Our voices have been lost. That’s it. Simple.”
“Absolutely,” added a student studying advanced manufacturing. He liked what he heard from Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, before supporting Trump in the general election.
Participants echoed a common theme: they expect help and fairness from their employers and government in return for hard work, but their goal is economic independence.
So, we wondered, if these working-class Millennials want their leaders to address the challenges they face, what, specifically, do they want the incoming Trump administration and Congress to do about them? To find out, we asked for their feedback on several proposals that aim to help working-class families. In this post, we highlight their reactions to policies related to work and family, specifically: paid parental leave, tax relief (including childcare help) and fair scheduling.
Paid Parental Leave
We presented a few paid parental leave plans to participants, including Hillary Clinton’s plan to provide 12 weeks of paid leave for both working parents and Donald Trump’s plan to provide 6 weeks of maternity leave.
A father who received only one week of unpaid leave after the birth of his child was the first to speak up. “I want to get what gives the most benefit right away, which on the surface seems like plan one,” he said, referring to Clinton’s plan.
“There we go again, getting greedy,” said a self-described “angry factory worker.” He continued,
How much is that gonna cost us in taxes later? How much is that gonna cost America in production in order to keep up with other countries? That’s how we got ourselves into this mess. We’re all complaining about high taxes. Well, there you go. . .
But then people began telling their stories.
“I had no paid maternity leave with any of my four kids,” said one mother. She said she once returned to work only three weeks after a C-section, “because I needed the money.”
“That’s dangerous!” noted another mother.
“I did what I had to do,” she replied. “I got four kids to feed.”
If paid parental leave had been an option for her, we asked, would she have taken it?
“Most definitely,” she said.
“There have been many times I’ve been told not to work,” said another mother, “and I’ve withheld that information from my employers because I have to work.” She also didn’t have paid leave after the births of her four children, and only once did she take unpaid leave (and that was only because she couldn’t get her infant into daycare until she was six weeks old).
“When I had my second daughter, I went back to work when she was three days old,” she said. “When she was two weeks old, I found out I had cancer. I still worked through treatment and everything. Because I had to work.”
She preferred the six-week maternity leave plan. Her husband didn’t like taking care of babies, anyway: “Not until they’re one or two years old, that’s his preference. Which is fine with me,” she added. She liked the idea of her husband working full-time while she received the equivalent of six weeks pay in unemployment benefits.
But not everyone agreed.
“Fathers get lost,” said the wife of a factory worker. “They don’t have the option of getting leave to spend time with their new children.” She liked Clinton’s plan because it “seems the most beneficial to the family as a whole because it allows the father time off to bond with a new child.” But she said both parents having even six weeks of paid leave would be “amazing.”
At this point, the “angry factory worker” who suggested that people advocating for paid parental leave were “greedy,” remembered his own experience after the birth of his first child. He remembered waking up in the middle of the night a lot and “freaking out” because he wanted to be sure his child was still breathing. “With the first kid, there’s a lot of craziness,” he acknowledged. He said he liked the idea of at least a couple weeks of paid leave for both parents.
Several recipients agreed that while 12 weeks of paid leave would be nice, it wouldn’t be necessary. Compared with what they had now—no one had ever received any paid parental leave—six weeks of paid leave seemed like a luxury.
By the end of the conversation, everyone in the group wanted to see Congress consider some form of paid parental leave legislation—even the self-described “angry factory worker” ideologically committed to “Reaganomics” and deep tax cuts.
“The number one issue for me is the taxes,” said the factory worker. “You look at my paycheck and it says, ‘You made $1,000.’ And then you look at the bottom and it says, ‘You only get $600.’” At this, there was laughter and general agreement from the group.
He continued, “If you gave me $200 of that $400,we would be good. My wife would never have to be like, ‘Well maybe I should go work at McDonald’s just to help out.’”
“Our social programs are killings us,” he added. And when we presented Trump’s childcare plan, his first question was, “How much is my taxes going to go up every week to pay for that?”
“We’d get more out if all the fraud was taken care of,” said a mother studying advanced manufacturing, adding:
We’re having women pop out babies like Pez dispensers with different baby daddies, and they get welfare every month. They get their housing paid for, their food. They drive these brand new cars, their nails are done, their hair is done, they’ve got these name brand clothes and purses. But yet I'm struggling to put food on the table for my four kids.
“Right!” came a response from the other end of the room.
At the same time, participants resented that the harder they worked, the more difficult it was to receive help and climb out of the “hole.” A couple of participants brought up what one person called “the million dollar question”: when it comes to eligibility for public assistance, is it based on one’s pre-tax income or post-tax income? As they saw it, it made a big difference.
“When we need the assistance like Medicaid, food stamps—that kind of stuff—we are just over the income limit,” said the part-time McDonald’s worker. “They don’t base it on what you bring home; they base it on what you make before you pay your taxes. Tell me how that makes sense?”
At this, several people nodded their heads and murmured in agreement.
“They take out $300 of each of my checks,” said the sous-chef, referring to the taxes taken out of his checks every two weeks. His gross income was over $1,000, but he resented the $300 that came out of each paycheck. “You can’t live off that,” he said.
“They take out $400 in mine!” said his wife, the hospital registrar.
When discussing Trump’s proposals to increase tax deductions for childcare expenses—including for stay-at-home mothers—and to offer spending rebates at tax time for low-income families to help cover the cost of childcare, some said that they preferred to see relief throughout the year, rather than in tax relief at the end of the year.
“I’d rather make it month-to-month,” said the mother of four, who works at a daycare. “If I stayed home with my kids, and I knew that I’d make it from month-to-month, I wouldn’t care if I got taxes back” at the end of the year.
“I would rather have more on each of my paychecks than in a tax return at the end of the year,” a substitute school bus driver who is trying to get out of public housing told us after the focus group, “because otherwise you get behind during the year and then you have to use your tax return to catch up.” At the moment, she was $420 behind on rent and said she could get an eviction notice any day. Since she began working as a school bus driver, the public housing authority raised her rent by $300 a month. But, she pointed out, that’s not taking into consideration that she can’t work during the holidays and would not receive pay for a couple of weeks in December.
We also asked participants if they received an expanded $1,200 tax credit at tax time to help pay for childcare—as Trump’s plan suggests a full-time employee making $15 an hour might be able to do—would they actually use it to pay for childcare, or would they use it to pay for other expenses?
The hospital registrar said,
Most normal people would probably end up using it for something else. Oh, I have this electric bill, I have this bill, I have that bill. That’s what I do with my taxes.... I catch up on stuff I owe.
“Catch up,” said the daycare worker. “It’s just to catch up.”
“Yep, that’s what I do, too,” added the factory worker. “All my tax returns go to pay off stuff.”
“It seems like a band-aid over a big wound,” said the manufacturing student about a larger tax return.
The warehouse team leader put it this way:
It seems like if you are getting a larger tax return but you aren’t getting a larger paycheck, they kind of cancel each other out. Everyone feels great when that tax return of a couple grand arrives from the government, but in the end, if your paycheck hasn’t gone up enough over the long term, you’re probably going to lose.
“I think it’s disgusting we live in a society that’s so highly taxed that we’re even talking about this,” added the factory worker.
“Right!” chimed in the part-time McDonald’s worker, who asked indignantly, “[T]his $2,000, where is it going to come from?” She was referring to Trump’s proposal to allow families to deposit up to $2,000 for each child, free of income tax, into a child care savings account program. “Is that coming straight from the government? Are they going to give us $2,000?”
The uproar from the group climaxed at this latter suggestion: a government handout of $2,000 to help parents cover childcare expenses? To most people in this group, it seemed far too generous.
“If we just cut down on what the government is taxing us and what they’re helping us with, just let us run our own lives with less taxes,” said the stay-at-home mom.
We clarified that, under Trump’s plan, the government would not give a $2,000 cash handout to each family to put into a childcare savings account program, though low-income families would receive a $500 match from the government. But the group’s reaction was telling: while they are grateful for public assistance for which they’re eligible—like Medicaid and housing assistance—they were cool to the idea of big cash handouts from the government. They want to earn their own money, and they want more of what they earn to go directly into their regular paychecks through reduced taxes so that they can receive immediate help paying their monthly bills. They have an earning ethic.
The white, working-class men and women we interviewed have an earning ethic.
Interestingly, the conversation about reducing payroll taxes was not on our radar entering the focus group. As the warehouse team leader said, “It’s unfortunate that taxes wasn’t one of the topics on the list.”
“We kind of added it in on our own,” the hospital registrar pointed out.
Their enthusiasm for payroll tax relief provides an opening for lawmakers interested in targeting relief to working- and middle-class families but worried about creating more dependence on government programs. Their responses also suggest that lawmakers would do well to focus more on providing relief that families see throughout the year, rather than directing more lump-sum relief at tax time.
The conversation about payroll taxes erupted when we elicited feedback about Trump’s proposals to help families cover childcare costs. Specifically, we discussed the following:
- Allow families to fully deduct the average cost of childcare from their taxes, including stay-at-home parents and care provided by family members and friends.
- Child care spending rebates to lower-income taxpayers through the existing Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
- A child care savings account program, into which any family could deposit up to $2,000 for each child, free of income tax, and where low-income families receive up to a $500 match from the government.
To our surprise, most in the group were unenthusiastic about these proposals—even though most people cited childcare costs as a big challenge.
“See, childcare,” the part-time McDonald’s worker began with a heavy sigh,
this is one of those to where I don’t feel like it really applies to me because…I don’t trust childcare [centers]. I don’t. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people who have done horrible things to children, inside a daycare. People that put their trust in other people and have been screwed…. I don’t trust just anybody with my kids. Unless you are somebody I know really well or a family member, you are not taking my kids.
“You’re not alone,” added the hospital registrar.
“And what are you learning there?” asked the factory worker. “Are you learning your ABC’s or are you watching SpongeBob?”
The mother who worked part-time at McDonald’s didn’t understand why the government wanted to compensate stay-at-home mothers.
I’m glad that it includes stay-at-home parents, but I don’t see why it [does]. And that’s coming from a mom who stays home most of the time. Any money that I need to take care of my child is coming from my husband’s job. So I mean, I’ll take the money if they’re willing to give it to me, but I don’t see why.
However, one of the working mothers suggested that the government might be able to save money by enabling mothers who want to stay at home to do so, instead of subsidizing their childcare costs.
Because I did the math, and for my kids to go to the daycare they go to, if I didn’t get help for four children to go every week, it’s almost five grand a month to go…. If I could stay home and they didn’t have to help me pay for childcare, [then] that would help the government itself.
In retrospect, at least one person’s concern about the proposals seemed to stem from a misunderstanding of the proposal: she appeared to believe that the increased childcare cost tax deduction would be used to take away any tax return she might get, instead of decreasing the overall amount in taxes that she would have to pay.
But one thing was crystal clear: childcare costs were a problem for many people. When we asked the participants if childcare was an issue for them, they generally agreed.
The stay-at-home mom studying medical billing and coding put it this way:
We’re kind of in a different situation in that we don’t put our child in childcare, but then we’re kind of stuck either way. If I go to work to make more money, it’s all gonna go to childcare. If I stay home with him, then we have no money. So it’s like, what are we gonna do?
The part-time McDonald’s worker added, "And then the little bit of assistance you can get for daycare is like, it’s not really worth the amount of red tape."
“And we don’t want to live off the state, either,” added the stay-at-home mom. “We want to do it honestly.”
The two daycare workers explained that they became daycare workers so that they could afford to send their children to daycare. (Employees at the daycare received a discount.)
When we asked the preferences of the women in the group, most said that they would prefer to either be a stay-at-home mom or combine that with part-time work—or at least be able to work from home with their kids.
However, one mother of four children spoke up to say she preferred working full-time, even though she felt that “it sounds really horrible.”
“No, it doesn’t!” several people said.
“Personal preference,” said the warehouse team leader. “There is nothing wrong with that.”
Despite strong personal preferences, participants were supportive of a variety of work-family choices.
For several of the working-class individuals in the focus group, having a greater measure of predictability in their work schedules was an important issue. They noted that the lack of it made scheduling their lives, including family-related events, extremely difficult. “The Schedules That Work Act,” sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would, among other things, give many workers in service industries the right to request changes to their schedules without fear of retaliation, as well as receive their schedules two weeks in advance.
“That’d be nice,” said the hospital registrar.
“Instead of the day before!” agreed her husband, a sous-chef at a retirement community. He said he receives his two-week schedule one day before the schedule begins.
“You want to talk about trying to schedule family time,” noted his wife. She said they didn’t even know if he would have off for his own wedding until the Saturday before the wedding date. Fortunately, he wasn’t scheduled to work, and they were able to get married without worrying that he would have to lose his job in the process.
Another time, they had a family vacation planned months in advance: the itinerary set, hotels booked, everything. But the week before their planned vacation, his supervisor told him that he couldn’t take the time off. He was afraid that if he still took off, he’d lose his job. So he didn’t go on vacation with his family.
Another person who had formerly worked at a supermarket chain store reported that the same thing happened to him: he was scheduled to go on a family vacation with his then-fiancée’s family, but he learned the day before that he was scheduled to work. “All of a sudden I had to call her and say, ‘I hate to tell you this but I can’t go now,'” he told us.
Several participants expressed concern about the bill’s language allowing employers to refuse schedule changes if there was “a legitimate business reason.” They suggested that employers could easily invent such reasons even if they didn’t exist. After all, several participants mentioned times they had been treated unfairly by bosses.
“I got laid off because I was pregnant,” said one woman who had a high-risk pregnancy. “I could never prove it 100 percent, but….”
“I got fired because I was pregnant, too,” added another woman. When she was five months pregnant, her boss called to tell her that she wouldn’t need to come into work anymore. “I trained my replacement, and I had no clue,” she added.
The sous-chef was particularly passionate about this issue. He said there have been times he was scheduled to clock in at 10:00 a.m., only to be told after clocking in that he was supposed to be there an hour earlier. One supervisor later admitted to him that a more senior supervisor sometimes surreptitiously changed the schedule after it had already been posted, “and then act like nothing’s happened—and then reprint the schedule and post it up and then b**** at you.”
In light of such experiences, some expected that bosses would fabricate “legitimate business reasons” even when none existed. Still, with some improvement to the language, they believed that the bill was important.
“I think there’s no debate on this one. I don’t think there’s a problem with it,” said the factory worker who saw a “dark underbelly” (higher taxes) in many other proposals to help working families.
After discussion, every participant said they would like Congress to consider “The Schedules That Work Act.” As one person said, summing up the mood in the room, “I think in the end it makes bigger companies…show courtesy to their employees.”
What might the Trump administration and other political leaders take away from these responses to work-family policies from the 10 white, working-class Millennial parents in our focus group?
- First, they want to keep more of their own money in each paycheck. Many participants felt that if they could pay less in taxes and keep more of their earnings, they would be better able to pay for their monthly expenses, instead of having to turn to government programs for help.
- Second, they expect basic courtesy from their employers. Participants told stories of being unable to plan their family lives because of their employers’ haphazard and last-minute scheduling practices. Mothers told stories of having to go back to work only days after giving birth, and alleging that they got fired or laid off just because they were pregnant. These situations made participants feel disrespected and punished for having families.
- Third, they don’t want to take advantage of public assistance. Participants did not want to appear “greedy,” as one participant put it. Instead of demanding more government assistance, they were interested in finding ways to minimize their need for aid. Every participant either worked or was pursuing more education, and some became visibly angry when talking about others they perceived as “frauding” the system by taking aid and not working. But, as we’ll explore more tomorrow, they also value public assistance and wish that it wouldn’t be immediately reduced simply for earning more or getting married.
- Finally, they vote with their heads, not just their pocketbooks. Participants clearly want lawmakers to address their challenges, but they also want them to think about any long-term unintended consequences of policies intended to help Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck. However, because of their experiences, they believe that bosses can come up with “legitimate business reasons” for doing many things that make their family lives unpredictable, so they support legislation that would ensure better working conditions and greater stability for many working parents.
In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore participants’ reactions to proposals to eliminate marriage penalties in public assistance programs, as well as their thoughts about “the success sequence.”
1. The 10 participants in the focus group represent seven couples in southern Ohio: six married and one cohabiting. They are all high-school-educated, white, Millennial parents who have working-class jobs. We did not screen for participants’ support of any particular presidential candidate, but when asked at the focus group, most revealed that they had voted for Donald Trump, though at least two participants did not vote. We knew most of the individuals already, whether through our research in southern Ohio or through our neighborhood, and have developed friendships with many of them.