Photo by Flickr user Aikawa Ke

This election cycle, Democratic contenders are spotlighting the need for affordable child care in the United States, an issue they warn is increasingly urgent as families grapple with burdensome costs.

The average annual price of daycare for infants, which varies dramatically across the country, is now higher than that of a year of public college in two-thirds of states. Parents can expect to pay $16,500 in Massachusetts, $11,628 in California and $12,500 in Illinois, according to Child Care Aware of America. The necessity to keep working, a reality for most parents of young kids, often makes the quality of the child care center a secondary concern, advocates say. 

On Wednesday, the Center for American Progress, a popular source of policy ideas for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, is releasing a new a policy proposal to help ease this common strain: A new “high-quality” child care tax credit, worth up to $14,000 per child. 

The proposal would target low- and moderate-income families. Under the plan, the tax credit would be advanced to families on a monthly basis and paid directly to child care providers. The centers, selected by parents, would qualify for the federal money only if they met the state’s minimum quality standards.

For the poorest families -- up to those earning $32,253, or 133 percent of the poverty line, for a family of four -- the tax credit would be worth $13,340 a year, requiring a family contribution of $660, or 2 percent of income. Families of four earning $97,000, or 400 percent of the poverty line, would be eligible for a $2,360 tax credit, requiring a family contribution of $11,640, or 12 percent. The amount of the family contribution increases with income.


Provided by the Center for American Progress

Parents would have to earn income to qualify. Those who are out of work may qualify for other federal subsidies, though many are stuck on financial aid waiting lists that stretch thousands of names long. Some simply don't know the help exists -- a hurdle advocates say can be cleared with more community outreach. Only 18 percent of children eligible to receive assistance under federal rules receive the vouchers, according to the Department of Human and Health Services.

"Our childcare subsidy system doesn't come anywhere near serving all the kids who need help," said Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women's Law Center.

The CAP authors don't specify how the program would be paid for. Restructuring the tax system and closing "wasteful loopholes," however, would help cover the costs, said Carmel Martin, CAP's executive vice president for policy.

The plan, available for any candidate’s consideration, could influence Hillary Clinton’s next move on child care. It’s a more aggressive approach than other pushes, such as attempts from liberal lawmakers to make the existing Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit refundable, meaning people with low incomes could benefit from the full value of the tax credit even if they have limited income tax due. Clinton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, weary of increasing spending, have not supported similar measures.

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The CAP idea is more moderate than what Clinton’s top challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has pledged to do: Tax the wealthy to fund public child care. (Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore, has also called for universal childcare but hasn’t yet voiced a way to pay for it.)

Clinton has said widening access to child care would benefit the economy.

"Another key ingredient of strong growth that often goes overlooked and undervalued: Breaking down barriers so more Americans can participate more fully in the workforce, especially women,” Clinton proclaimed in July during her first major economic speech. “We are in a global competition and we can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines.”

The issue has never reached more prominence in the national conversation, said Neera Tanden, president of CAP and former policy director for Clinton. “The facts on the ground are getting harder and harder for parents to take,” she said. “The system we have obviously doesn’t meet the needs of children.”

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The flow of cash would spark three desirable outcomes, the CAP authors said.  Parents could afford daycare without worrying about their kids’ safety, providers would have a new incentive to operate at high-quality level and more quality centers would enter the market.