The 2016 presidential election has been full of surprises, and this week has been no exception. In an attempt to restart his campaign, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has unveiled a series of economic proposals that address, among other concerns, child care.
Citing the influence of his daughter Ivanka, Trump on Monday proposed a tax deduction that would allow families to subtract child-care expenses from their taxable income. After telling a mother with a crying baby at a campaign rally last week to “get the baby out of here,” the Republican candidate may have needed to make a more friendly gesture to parents.
At first glance, the candidate who once dismissed child care as an issue that employers could easily address with blocks and swings seems to have experienced a change of heart. After all, the cost of child care exceeds rent in every state and college tuition in most areas. It is no exaggeration to say that America is facing a child-care crisis.
Unfortunately, Trump's child-care plan doesn’t address that crisis because it would primarily benefit people like his own family and do little to help the people who need it most.
Tax deductions are inherently regressive. Unlike a tax credit, which reduces the amount of taxes owed, or a “refundable” tax credit, which goes to people even if they don’t owe taxes, a tax deduction is worth more to people the higher their tax bracket. Trump’s proposal would allow families to deduct the average cost of child care, presumably around $10,000 per child. But for a family in the lowest bracket in Trump’s tax plan—those earning below $58,000 annually—the deduction could be worthless. On the other hand, wealthier people in the top bracket—those earning $308,000 or more annually—could save $3,300 per year.
In fact, families that earn less income spend a higher proportion of it on child care. They’re the ones facing a crunch paying for child care. Among families with child-care expenses, those living in poverty spend over one-third of their income on child-care payments. For low-income families living just above the poverty level (up to $48,000 annually for a family of four), child-care costs account for 20 percent of monthly income. By comparison, the rate for higher earners is less than 10 percent.
Furthermore, most families pay child-care tuition on a weekly or monthly basis and cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs. A tax deduction wouldn’t provide relief from child-care costs until the end of the year, so Trump’s help would be too late as well as too little for them.
Critically, Trump’s plan also misses a key component of the child-care crisis: the child-care workforce. Today, the median wage for child-care workers is less than $10 per hour—less than earnings for animal caretakers, who make $11.71 per hour. The people entrusted to care for other people’s children often cannot provide for their own. That low pay shouldn’t just be a concern of theirs. The most important aspect of good child care is the interaction between the caregivers and children, and chronically low wages and poor working conditions aren’t conducive to the sustained attention and care that children need. It is not surprising, then, that just 10 percent of child-care programs today are rated as high-quality.
In contrast to Trump, Hillary Clinton has put the interests of low- and middle-income families at the center of her proposals for paid family leave and child care. Several months ago, she announced she would limit child-care costs to 10 percent of a family’s income through a combination of subsidies and tax credits. That means that low-income and middle-class families would pay roughly the same as higher-income families as a proportion of income. Clinton also aims to improve the quality of child care through the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (RAISE) initiative, to fund wage increases and educational supports for the early-childhood workforce.
Trump’s child-care proposal, even with its limitations, testifies to the importance of the issue. The Republican Party platform makes no mention of child care, and an earlier draft was reported to portray preschool as an example of government overreach into the family. Trump’s effort to use child care to tap into voter discontent speaks volumes about the salience of child care as an economic issue to working families.
Yet it’s one thing to use child-care costs to appeal to hard-pressed parents and another to develop feasible ideas that make high-quality child care accessible and affordable for those families. Trump has promised further details on his proposal in the coming weeks. Let’s see if he has any more to say to low-income and middle-class parents than “get the baby out of here.”