Giving parents cash shouldn't just be a right-wing idea
Pushing parents into the workforce is overrated.
I’m a huge fan of Chris Hayes’s podcast Why Is This Happening, so it was a treat to appear on his podcast this week talking about my experience as a dad who “leans out.” As you probably know, I’ve written about my experience “leaning out”—that is, prioritizing child care over work so that my wife can focus on her own career as a physician. Chris and I discussed that experience on his show.
Near the end of the interview, Chris asked me if our conversation had any policy implications. I said that if the government is going to spend more money supporting the parents of young children, as many liberals advocate, it would be better to do this by giving parents cash rather than spending it on subsidized child care.
Chris took the conversation in a direction I didn’t expect, describing this as “basically a conservative position.” He pointed to Republican senators like Utah’s Mike Lee, who has advocated giving parents of young children a larger child tax credit as an alternative to government-supported day care. I don’t think Chris is wrong about the way this debate played out last year. But I do think that giving parents of young children cash rather than child care subsidies makes sense in progressive terms.
There’s no good reason to prefer day care over at-home parenting
This debate is somewhat analogous to one we’ve had in the K-12 education world for decades. Conservatives have proposed giving parents vouchers that let them choose where and how to educate their kids. There are two big reasons that progressives oppose this idea:
The public has an interest in ensuring that every child gets an education so that they can fully participate in society as workers and voters. Directly providing schooling enables the government to maintain minimum quality standards.
Public schools can be an engine for racial and economic integration. With public schools, every family in a particular community sends their kids to the same school whether they are rich or poor, black or white.
As a bit of a right-winger myself, I’ll note that both of these premises are debatable even in the K-12 education context. Public schools don’t always do a good job of educating their students, and residential segregation has led to many communities having de facto school segregation.
But the more important point is that neither one of these arguments really applies to the provision of child care for very young kids. Toddlers don’t need academic instruction, they just need a lot of attention and affection from conscientious adults. Toddlers also don’t form lasting friendships the way older kids do, so it doesn’t matter very much if they have a diverse peer group.
All of which is to say that I think a parent or grandparent can provide a one-year-old with care that’s at least as good—both for the toddler and for society as a whole—as formal, center-based child care. This is especially true because an at-home parent will often be able to provide a more favorable ratio of adults to children than a day care center.
And so given that there’s no compelling reason for the government to put its thumb on the scales in favor of institutional child care, why not let parents choose? Instead of subsidizing day care centers, give the cash to parents and let them spend it on day care if they want to—or on something else if they prefer.
Work is overrated in this context
I think one reason Chris described this as a conservative proposal is that some of the money would flow to traditional families with a breadwinning dad and a stay-at-home mom. That’s true, but the point I made back to him was that it can also promote families with a stay-at-home dad and a breadwinner mom.
But I also think it’s worth interrogating the assumption that it’s a good idea to push mothers of young children into the workforce.
Over the last 30 years, politicians on the right have looked to apply work requirements to a variety of government benefits, including TANF, Medicaid and food stamps. That’s partly to save taxpayers money, but conservatives also argue that work requirements can be good for the recipients themselves, since getting and keeping a job puts a worker on the path to self-sufficiency.
Progressives, of course, oppose these policies. They want to use a carrot—child care subsidies—rather than a stick to push women into the workplace. But the underlying rationale is actually fairly similar: that women need to work to avoid becoming financially dependent on their husbands.
I have some sympathy for both of these perspectives, but I also think they both underplay the value of parents spending time with their own children. In general, it’s good for adults to work and support themselves. But being the parents of young children is itself a form of work that has large societal benefits. A mom who spends two or three years at home caring for her young children isn’t slacking off.
A better critique for liberals to make of Senator Mike Lee’s proposal is that it’s stingy. Lee proposed expanding the child tax credit to $4,500 per child. That compares to the $3,600 offered by the 2021 American Rescue Plan or the $2,000 child tax credit that existed prior to 2021.
So Lee’s proposal added $2,500 to the existing child credit. That’s not nearly enough to defray the cost of child care in most parts of the US. But if you made the credit much bigger—say, $10,000 per child for the first three years of a child’s life—that would cover a large share of child care costs for the average family. But it would also give them the option to make other child care arrangements (a parent staying at home, leaving the child with friends or relatives) and spend the money on diapers or rent or something else the family needs more.
And while $10,000 per year might sound a lot of money, a public day care facility would likely cost even more on a per-pupil basis. So if you want to spend that kind of money helping the parents of young children, it should be up to parents, not the government, to decide the best use for the money.