For families across the country, child care is now an expense that rivals rent or mortgage payments. Democrats want to make it an entitlement, similar to social security or Medicare which, they hope, would make the service affordable for every struggling family.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) unveiled an ambitious proposal last week for taxpayers to cover most of the day-care bill.
Under the plan — backed by 27 Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — the federal government would subsidize state day-care programs for children up to 13 years old and wages for child-care workers, whose average earnings hover just above the national minimum wage.
Low-income to middle-class parents, or those earning less than 150 percent of their state's median income, would pay no more than 7 percent of their household's annual earnings for “quality” child care.
The idea builds on Hillary Clinton's campaign promise last year, although Clinton's plan would have capped child-care spending at 10 percent of family income.
It comes as lawmakers on both sides are putting together their most generous policies yet to address the rising cost of child care — a force economists say holds back the country's growth.
“At a time when far too many working families are struggling, finding quality child care that doesn’t break the bank shouldn’t be another thing keeping parents up at night,” Murray said in a statement.
The left's steps to make day care a public good would cost $60 billion over 10 years, the Democrats estimate, and they haven’t said how the country would pay for it — in the unlikely event that congressional Republicans take it seriously.
“The Democrats have been trying for decades to have some kind of national day-care program, and this is the latest iteration,” said Samuel Hammond, a policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian research group.
President Trump's policy team is taking a different approach.
Ivanka Trump, first daughter and adviser to the president, is pushing a proposal on Capitol Hill that addresses the child-care burden through the tax code. She wants to double the child tax credit to at least $2,000.
American families claimed $55 billion in the credits last year, and the administration has not provided more details on the proposed expansion, including how it would be funded.
The move doesn't break with Republican norm. Ivanka Trump is taking further an old GOP idea that has garnered bipartisan support in the past. (She and the Trump administration quietly scrapped their campaign pledge to make the cost of child care tax-deductible after neither party came to embrace the idea.)
The child tax credit took effect 20 years ago. It was a GOP brainchild and started at $500 before President George W. Bush increased it to $1,000, sociologist Joshua McCabe wrote last week in a history of the credit. President Barack Obama, he added, increased its value to low-income workers in 2009.
“Since its introduction, both parties have continued to compete for working and middle class voters by expanding it,” McCabe added.
Ivanka Trump has been working with the office of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the latest attempt to raise it. Some Republicans have expressed support, but there's no guarantee the right will fight to put it in the tax bill they're crafting.
Day-care expenses vary widely by state.
In Alabama, parents can expect to pay an average of $470 per month for infant care, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. The same arrangement costs $975 in New York, $743 in Indiana and $1,886 in Washington, D.C.
Currently, researchers have found, minimum-wage workers in every state would have to pay at least 30 percent of what they make in a year to afford a regular day-care slot for a baby.
Running a day care is expensive, too, and research has found that tighter regulations meant to protect children, which vary by state, drives down the number of centers that can afford to operate, especially in low-income areas.
California programs, for instance, must employ one adult for every three infants. Such rules might be optimal for babies, but economists say they keep wages low, since raising the cost of care doesn’t work — parents can’t afford to pay it.
A report last year from the University of California at Berkeley found that roughly half the workers who watch America’s children qualify for food stamps. Meanwhile, parents still feel forced out of work to care for their kids, even if they depend on two incomes. The cost of care is sometimes higher than a mom or dad’s salary.