The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Working parents are an endangered species. That’s why Democrats are talking child care.

Children return to a child-care center in Washington after a trip outside. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Democrats’ child-care proposals, such as the plan put forward by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last week, target an increasingly rare breed: the working parent.

Parents make up a smaller share of the U.S. labor force now than at any other time in at least a century, according to our analysis of Census Bureau and Labor Department data. But it’s not because parents aren’t working. It’s because workers aren’t becoming parents.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposes universal child care, paid for by tax on ultra-millionaires

In that way, Warren’s plan to provide care for all children up to age 5, free for low-income families and discounted for others, reaches beyond today’s working parents. It even reaches beyond all those who stay home because they can’t afford child care.

Democratic presidential candidates are targeting the substantial group of Americans who avoid having children because they can’t afford the estimated $233,610 it would take to raise a child to age 18. (That number doesn’t include lost earnings.)

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We focused on parents with children age 5 and under, but working parents are vanishing across the age spectrum. About 41 percent of workers between the ages of 20 and 54 have a child at home, down from 62 percent in 1968.

The number of working parents isn’t falling just because parents have decided to stay home. The share of parents of children under age 5 who are working or looking for work has remained steady, between 77 and 79 percent, since the late 1990s. Through March 2018, the most recent month for which comparable data is available, it’s at 78 percent.

Instead, it’s likely that working Americans are having fewer children or avoiding parenthood altogether. Birth rates and fertility rates, which account for the number of women of childbearing age, are at their lowest levels on record, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The record extends from 1909 to 2016, the most recent year for which we have data.

Americans are getting married later. They’re buying homes later. We can pin at least part of the blame on economic forces, such as the rising cost of child care.

Gray Kimbrough can’t afford a third child. He already pays more for child care than he does for his mortgage.

His daughter, now 5, spent 2½ years — half of her time on this planet — on a waiting list before she got a sought-after spot at a day care in Silver Spring, Md. His 2-year-old son got in, but only because his sister was already there. But it’s the only option close enough to both his and his wife’s commutes that they can execute the high-speed ballet of pickups, drop-offs and school meetings that defines the days of a working parent.

In a 2017 PRRI survey, 31 percent of all Americans (and 53 percent of black Americans) described the cost of child care as a “critical issue.”

Kimbrough, an economist who teaches at American University, pays $3,455 per month for day care — down from $3,565 a year earlier, now that his son no longer needs special infant care. Until his children are older, Kimbrough said, he and his wife can pursue only jobs that fit with the geography and schedule dictated by day care.

In a June 2015 Washington Post survey, 62 percent of mothers and 36 percent of fathers said they had stopped working or taken a lesser job for child-care reasons.

“We thought we were prepared,” Kimbrough said. “I didn’t quite realize it would be $3,500 a month.” But, he said, “we’re in a position where we can pay for it."

That may not be true of the lowest-income Americans. Already, young folks who grew up in low-income homes say they’re less willing to become parents themselves.

When asked about their future, just over a quarter, 27 percent, of teens from families earning less than $30,000 a year considered having children to be “extremely” or “very” important, compared with 43 percent of higher-income teens, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. In contrast, 95 percent of teens of all income levels place a high level of importance on “having a job or career they enjoy.”

Research indicates that universal child care might encourage people to have children. Spending on early-childhood programs tends to be related to an increase in fertility and a decrease in the gender wage gap, economists Claudia Olivetti (Boston College) and Barbara Petrongolo (Queen Mary University of London) found in a 2017 Journal of Economic Perspectives analysis.

Men and women earn similar amounts until the birth of their first child, at which point the man’s earnings remain steady while the woman’s earnings plummet, according to a working paper from economists Henrik Kleven (Princeton University), Jakob Egholt Sogaard (University of Copenhagen) and Camille Landais (London School of Economics). The paper was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year.

The original work focused on Denmark, but a follow-up study found that, in the United States, having a child could set a woman’s earnings back about 31 percent. Other research has found a similar effect.

According to Kleven, the gender gap is driven in roughly equal parts by reduced wages, reduced working hours and a higher likelihood of leaving the workforce.

The United States has struggled to coax workers off the sidelines. Since 2000, most of the 40-plus nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have seen a steady rise in the share of prime-age (ages 25 to 54) men and women who were working or looking for work. The United States is the biggest exception. There, labor-force participation in this age group has fallen significantly.

By removing one of the biggest obstacles for working parents, a universal child-care policy might encourage more parents to rejoin the labor force, Kimbrough said.

Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Leubsdorf noted in 2017 that, after running in parallel for decades, women’s labor-force participation in Canada and the United States began to diverge in the late 1990s. What else happened around that same time?

“Canada’s federal government encouraged more two-working parent households in the late 1990s and early 2000s by cutting tax rates, adding support for child care and expanding paid parental leave. Quebec’s provincial government introduced universal day care,” Leubsdorf wrote.

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this story.