Getting Child Care Off the “Mommy Track”

Child care is more than just a “women’s issue.”

Long relegated to the back bench of “mommy issues,” child care may finally get its chance on the national policy stage.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has made child care access a signature plank of her nascent agenda, urging middle class tax cuts to make child care more affordable and endorsing universal preschool. The Washington Post also recently devoted rare front-page space and a poll to this topic, finding that more than half of all parents (including three-quarters of moms and half of dads) have passed up job opportunities or even switched careers to help take care of their children.

Surveys show that millennial workers especially treasure work-life balance. And as more of the oldest members of this cohort – now entering their mid-thirties – become parents, child care access and affordability will increasingly become a concern.

These are all welcome developments for those of us who’ve long believed that child care is a universal economic concern – not just for mothers, but for fathers, grandparents, non-parents and employers, regardless of income or education. The cost and quality of child care have enormous impacts not just on parents’ career choices, but on a family’s quality of life, the productivity that employers see and – of course – the wellbeing and future success of a child. Nevertheless, policymakers have consistently treated child care as a niche-within-a-niche inside larger agendas around “women’s issues” or poverty.

Now that child care has a shot at front burner status, one way to keep it there is to ensure its broad relevance – and to avoid the policy and messaging traps that could make it too polarizing or insignificant. Here are a few ideas to help make child care an integral component of a broadly appealing “middle class” agenda:

Keep the focus on affordability, not employer mandates.

The Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of Americans say they support the idea of having the federal government require employers to give their workers more flexibility to care for their children.

While this figure may hearten many advocates, there’s probably no faster way to kill a serious debate on child care than to jump to the notion of an employer mandate for worker flexibility, with all the baggage such a proposal would bring.

The current debates – and lack of progress – on paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage are instructive. When President Obama signed an executive order in 2014 raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, polls showed that 73 percent of Americans supported a higher minimum wage. Likewise, polls also show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support mandatory paid sick leave. Nevertheless, Congress has shown little appetite for either of these issues, both of which also face fierce opposition from employer groups.

The more practical approach is the focus on affordability being taken by Secretary Clinton and by President Obama, who has also proposed tripling the current child and dependent care tax credit.

Include “gap care” for older kids.

Discussions of child care access have tended to focus on early childhood and are often conflated with proposals to expand Head Start or universal preschool. But there’s a suite of neglected child care issues involving school age children that could broaden the issue’s constituency.

One example is back-up and emergency care for sick kids. A child who suddenly succumbs to a fever isn’t welcome at day care or at school, and even parents with some flexibility may be unable to rearrange their schedules at the last minute. Few options exist for parents faced with this situation – with the exception of high-priced back-up care services offered by companies such as Bright Horizons.

One idea worth exploring is how to encourage more employers to offer back-up child care benefit as a benefit or to offer tax breaks to employers who subsidize these kinds of services.

Don’t forget stay-at-home parents.

When many politicians talk about child care, their principal audience is typically working parents or two-earner families. But by doing so they risk neglecting an important group: stay-at-home parents.

In a 2011 survey, the Working Mother Research Institute found that 55 percent of “career-oriented stay-at-home moms” would prefer to be working now if they could. The point is: A sizeable number of stay-at-home parents may be “stuck at home” parents as well, either pushed out of the workforce for lack of flexible work options or unable to find a job that pays more than the cost of child care.

One way to reach these stuck-at-home parents might be to expand the availability of the child and dependent care tax credit to parents preparing to “on-ramp” back into the workforce as part-time students or by enrolling in job training. Under current law, the credit is available only for “work-related” child care expenses, which means there’s no help for parents who want or need to re-invest in their careers.

None of this is to say that child care isn’t integral to resolving broader issues around equity, mobility and economic opportunity for low-income women and children. It is. But to get these issues the attention they deserve, the best strategy might be from the middle out.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.