WASHINGTON ― The American economic model punishes workers for having children, between a lack of paid leave and exorbitant child care costs. It’s the biggest reason child poverty is so high in the U.S. ― we’re making kids poor because we make their parents poor for having them.
For the first time in more than a decade, this might actually become an electoral concern.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is pushing for universal child care as part of her 2020 presidential campaign, and on Tuesday her Senate colleagues unveiled a similar proposal at the Capitol. It’s one of several big ideas for reducing poverty that Democratic presidential contenders are proposing in Congress. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are pushing housing affordability, while Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) would give parents a monthly allowance to defray parenting costs.
Most other countries throw money at parents, guarantee paid leave for births as well as other family medical needs, and finance child care systems that are available to everybody at a relatively low cost. The U.S. does none of those things and has higher child poverty than most other countries ― with lasting consequences.
Impoverishing children results in reduced adult productivity along with higher crime and health costs, and it wastes as much as a trillion dollars per year. That’s according to a landmark National Academy of Sciences report released this week by a panel of experts who reviewed the literature on child poverty and discussed ways to reduce it.
“If we believe in the future of the country and we want people to get out there and work hard and support their families, we have to invest in kids,” said the University of Wisconsin’s Timothy Smeeding, who served on the committee that produced the report.
One way to do that is by creating a child allowance along the lines of the Bennet-Brown proposal. That, combined with more generous tax credits and a higher minimum wage, could cut child poverty by 50 percent over a decade, the report found. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would still cost less than the corporate tax cut Republicans passed at the end of 2017. (As it is, only 10 percent of federal spending targets children, while 60 percent benefits seniors.)
The government measures poverty by taking into account a person’s income and the number of people in his or her household. The more family members, the more money they need to meet everyone’s basic living expenses and not be poor. So people who add children to their households are likelier to be poor, all else being equal. At the same time, parenting responsibilities reduce the household’s ability to make money.
By the official measure last year, the child poverty rate was 18 percent compared with an overall poverty rate of 12.7 percent. The government also has a more nuanced measure that better accounts for expenses and income; it puts the child rate at 15.6 percent versus 13.9 percent overall.
Matt Bruenig, founder of a left-wing think tank called the People’s Policy Project, wrote in a recent report that “the presence of children is one of the leading causes of poverty in American life.” By Bruenig’s reckoning, having children directly or indirectly drives 36 percent of all poverty in the U.S. To reduce child-driven poverty, Bruenig proposes paid leave, free child care and a child allowance.
Bennet and Brown would create their allowance by beefing up the existing Child Tax Credit, making it fully refundable and distributing the refund monthly as a cash advance. Democratic 2020 presidential contenders such as Harris, Booker, Warren and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) endorsed the previous version of the bill. Bennett and Brown, themselves possible candidates, plan to reintroduce that legislation soon, Bennet’s office said.
Democratic primary contests tend to elicit more aggressive antipoverty positions. Before the 2000 and 2008 elections, respectively, former Sens. Bill Bradley and John Edwards sought to distinguish themselves as antipoverty candidates. (Both lost.)
The child care proposals fit more familiar rhetoric about families and the middle class, though they too would probably still reduce child poverty. A 2017 paper from experts at the University of New Hampshire found that a third of poor families are pushed into poverty specifically by child care costs.
“Working parents are being forced to work fewer hours, turn down high-paid positions, and even quit their jobs because they can’t find child care,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Tuesday at a press conference introducing child care legislation that has dozens of Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate and House.
In 28 states, infant care is more expensive than education at a public university. The Murray bill would create a new federal child care program within the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is a federal grant that states and localities use to administer child care and other programs. It would also limit family expenses to a portion of their income, while poorer parents wouldn’t pay at all.
Child care expenses come at a particularly difficult time for parents, whether they’re near poverty or not, since a person’s prime childbearing years come long before their prime earning years.
“Middle-income people are supposed to be good and save for college when their kids are born, but we don’t tell 14-year-olds to save for their kids’ infant care,” said Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Last year, Congress boosted funding for the Child Care And Development Block Grant, currently the federal government’s main program for helping parents pay for care, which until then had seen its real funding level slide 17 percent since 2000. But even with that boost, the program only reaches 1 out of every 6 eligible children.
“Reliable, high-quality child care is a lynchpin issue for families, particularly families with low incomes,” said Christine Johnson-Staub of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “What we know about access to high-quality child care is that it not only helps children be prepared for education and do better later on but also it helps families be more economically stable and so it really is important in terms of turning around poverty and bringing families out of poverty.”
Neither Bennet’s nor Murray’s legislation stands a chance of becoming law while Donald Trump is president and Republicans control the Senate. One of the candidates championing these big ideas would probably need to become president to enact them, so it’s fitting that 2020 candidates are the ones pushing the policy agenda.