Will Obama’s Budget Keep an Eye on Your Kids?

Michelle Chen

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President Obama’s budget pitches plenty of elaborate strategies to boost economic recovery, from targeted business tax credits to clean energy investments. But one of the most immediately effective measures is elegantly simple: ensuring that working families don’t have to choose between going to work and being a family.

Building off of initiatives in the Recovery Act, the proposed budget lays out funds to help low- and middle-income families cover the cost of child care. The White House plans to nearly double the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for families making less than $85,000 per year. It would also fund child care subsidies for 1.6 million children, extending the program to potentially cover about 235,000 more kids. There’s also money for early childhood education, along with support for family leave programs for working parents.

This may sound like run-of-the-mill social welfare spending, but child care is actually sound labor policy, too.

When poor parents can’t afford the child care they need in order to work, climbing out of poverty becomes near impossible: no daycare, no job, no chance of moving to a better neighborhood or school district. And children are cut off from the supportive programs they need to thrive. Recent census data shows that there are over 7.5 million children under age 6 in single-parent homes who potentially need subsidized care.

Many of the families eligible for child care assistance, working low-wage jobs without health benefits or unemployment insurance, must devote a major chunk of their income to child care. According to a nationwide survey by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies:

In every region of the United States, average child care fees for an infant were higher than the average amount that families spent on food. In every state, monthly child care fees for two children at any age exceeded the median rent cost, and were nearly as high as, or even higher than, the average monthly mortgage payment. In 39 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual price for child care for an infant in a child care center was higher than a year’s tuition at a four-year public college.

The Urban Institute reported in 2008 that, while not all families seek out professional child care, in the face of economic barriers and shrinking state eligibility thresholds, only a small fraction of federally eligible children actually got subsidies; many were stuck on long waiting lists.

A study on child care and welfare policy by the Applied Research Center found that the low-income families fortunate enough to have a partial subsidy to pay for a local daycare program often still face steep out-of-pocket costs. The study also documented inconsistent quality among the programs available to poor families, due to weak regulatory and licensing standards.

Yet child care and early education may be critical for lifting a family out of poverty. 2006 report by Health and Human Services noted, child care subsidies are associated with the largest increases in employment for the most disadvantaged welfare recipients.”

The Center for American Progress’s poverty-reduction agenda argues that guaranteed child care, combined with a minimum wage hike and targeted family tax credits, could reduce poverty by 26 percent and narrow the poverty gap between whites and Black and Latino communities.

The expansion of federal subsidies could push cash-strapped states to not only serve more families, but enhance the child care workforce. NAACRRA points out that child care funding not only helps workers but stimulates the child care workforce, which supports about 15 million jobs.

In an assessment of state child care programs, the Center for Law and Social Policy pointed out major gaps in the child care infrastructure, especially for marginalized groups, like immigrant families. States have lagged in using their Child Care Development Block Grant resources to support continuous relationships between providers and the children they cared for” or to recruit, maintain, and support diverse and culturally sensitive infant/​toddler providers.”

Fresh funding for child care could spur initiatives like the training programs underway in Oregon, Wisconsin, and other states. They enable care providers to gain career-track accreditation while developing their skills in childhood development.

While lawmakers tout investments that create new jobs, an often overlooked, but no less crucial, priority for Washington is to make sure moms and dads have the support they need at home to get those jobs. Child care frees up workers to participate in the economy and at the same time strengthens the social service workforce. It’s hardly revolutionary, but when they know their children are in good hands, struggling parents have at least one less thing to worry about.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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