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Feb. 9, 2021, 9:40 a.m. EST

‘It’s not going to solve the problem’: Democrats unveil ambitious child-care tax credit, but will it be enough?

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By Andrew Keshner

As lawmakers debate how to get financially struggling Americans through the pandemic, one idea is more cash for families with children, with payments structured like mini-stimulus checks coming monthly.

In a child-care system where prices are rising and spots are contracting, however, the question is how much of dent these proposals can make for families confronting the expensive juggling act of work and daycare.

Those are sums that could outpace what’s being proposed.

On Monday, Democrats formally unveiled a plan boosting the Child Tax Credit to $3,600 for children under age 6, and $3,000 for kids up to age 17, up from the current $2,000 maximum credit. The proposal would arrange either $250 or $300 monthly checks depending on age.

This follows a recent proposal from Sen. Mitt Romney. The Republican from Utah would like the federal government send households $350 for every child under age 5, and $250 for children between the age of 6 and 17. Maximum monthly payments in his Family Security Act are capped at $1,250.

The ideas have differences, but they underscore a bipartisan focus on the links between child-care costs and economic recovery.  

“Chipping away is better than nothing, but it’s not going to solve the problem,” Wendy Robeson, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Wellesley College, said of the emerging proposals.

“Child care is not affordable for far too many,” said Mario Cardona, chief of chief of policy and practice at Child Care Aware of America, an organization focused on child-care quality, access and affordability.

Added money for families is “incredibly helpful for families, but in terms of child care, the cost of care is incredibly high,” he added.

Families paid an average between $9,200 and $9,600 for one child’s day care in 2019, according to data from the organization.

Bipartisan agreement on child care

More money to families can lift millions of children out of poverty, researchers say. The Family Security Act could bring 2.8 million children out of poverty and another 1.2 million out of deep poverty, according to the Niskanen Center, a right-leaning think tank.

President Joe Biden’s entire $1.9-trillion dollar relief proposal — which includes the large Child Tax Credit but also measures like a third batch of stimulus checks — would halve the child poverty rate and take 5 million children out of poverty, according to Columbia University researchers.

Neither proposal is assured and some observers voice caution.

The aims to reduce child poverty are laudable, said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan fiscal watchdog.

But it’s critical that’s done with programs the country can pay for, she said.  “We shouldn’t borrow from our kids in order to pay for their care when there are plenty of offsets available,” she said on Monday of the Democratic proposal, making a similar point on Romney’s idea.

Child-care costs soared pre-pandemic

In the face of child-care costs that were soaring before the pandemic, and showing no signs of stopping now, the proposals will ease pressure for families, Robeson said. But more still needs to be done, she said, and that speaks volumes of the flaws in America’s child-care approach right now.

The prospect of pulling millions of kids out of poverty is no small feat, she noted. Yet if people look at the proposals purely as a way to address child care costs and access in the first place, the ideas are just a start. “If we want high-quality childcare for all our children, we need to do more,” she said.

In recent research on how Boston-area parents were faring during the pandemic, Robeson said average annual child-care costs were $13,771 — well more than a semester of in-state tuition at University of Massachusetts Boston. (Students paid $7,338.50 for tuition and fees in the spring semester.)

Other numbers paint the intimidating tale on child-care costs.

It cost $215 weekly to pay for one child’s attendance at a child-care center in 2019, according to Care.com. That makes for a monthly payment $860. An after-school program averaged $243 a week, and a $972 monthly cost, Care.com data showed.

From December 2019 to December 2020, average child-care and nursery school costs increased 2.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Higher costs might also be a matter of fewer spots for parents to vie for. Up to estimated 4.5 million child-care slots might potentially be lost for good, according to an April estimate from the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Child-care centers struggle to survive

By July, 35% of child-care centers and 21% of family child-care centers, smaller licensed operations in a residential setting, were still closed, according to Child Care Aware of America.  

Months later, child-care centers still face stiff headwinds.

More than half (56%) of child-care providers said they lose money every day they stay open, according to a December survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional organization. Majorities say they have to pay more for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and staff.

Taking stock of the proposals, Cardona said, “Making changes are incredibly helpful, but’s not going to solve the problem” of access and affordability. Furthermore, he said, there would no requirement the money gets spent on child care. That’s why direct investment in child care businesses and extra funding for child care subsidies are needed, he said.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan earmarks  $40 billion for the child-care industry, with $25 billion in direct assistance to day-care providers and another $15 billion for extra money to help underwrite payments for low income families.

The federal government opened up the spigots during World War II to heavily subsidize child care and get mothers into the workforce while men joined the army, Robeson noted. Advocating a repeat effort, she said, “We did it once and it was because we really needed to help our economy.”

Added investments are well worth the return, she said, because “child care is the backbone of our economy.” Robeson added, “We have to think of child care as a common good, just as we did with public school.”

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