Early Childhood Has Its Moment in Presidential Campaign

By Lillian Mongeau — August 11, 2016 4 min read
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Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republican and Democratic nominees for president, surfaced early-childhood programs as an important issue this week.

For Trump, it was a noteworthy pivot to a domestic policy issue that has not been at the forefront of his campaign thus far. Clinton’s response, three days after Trump’s comments, was to criticize him for being late to the party—while offering up her own policy proposals.

During an economic speech in Detroit on Monday, Trump said more should be done to make child care affordable. In a wide-ranging address, he mentioned that his plan “will also help reduce the cost of child care by allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child care spending from their taxes.” He added that he “will unveil my plan on this in the coming weeks that I have been working on with my daughter Ivanka and an incredible team of experts.”

Ivanka Trump gave a high-profile mention to child-care issues during the Republican National Convention, and seems to have influenced her father’s stance, which has developed over time. Last November, at a town hall in Iowa, he suggested child care wasn’t that hard to do or expensive to operate, according to National Public Radio. “You need one person or two people, and you need some blocks and you need some swings and some toys,” he said then.

Perhaps at his daughter’s urging, he seems to have come around to the idea that child care is expensive, at least for most people. His Detroit speech said that his plan includes “offering much-needed relief to American families.” In an emailed statement after the speech, Trump said his plan would provide “credit to stay-at-home caregivers” and that “to provide benefits to lower-income taxpayers who may not benefit from the deduction, the plan also allows parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes—increasing their paycheck income each week.”

Katharine Stevens, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said Trump’s child-care deduction proposal wouldn’t offer relief to the families who need it most.

“About 40 percent of taxpayers had zero or negative income tax, so what that means is that a tax credit doesn’t help the neediest children,” Stevens said.

Katie Hamm, senior director for early-childhood policy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, agreed. The tax deduction Trump suggested would benefit wealthier people more than it would benefit poorer people, she said.

“A tax deduction is not a good way to do this,” Hamm said. “It gives you a tax windfall after you’ve paid for your child care. If you’re struggling to make ends meet month to month, it doesn’t really help you.”

Stevens and Hamm, who have both dedicated years to studying early-childhood education policy, also said that despite their misgivings about the deduction aspect of Trump’s proposal, they saw the fact that he’d mentioned it all as a positive sign that early childhood has finally gained the national importance it deserves.

“I think that is a really exciting moment,” Stevens said. “At the highest level, early childhood is really moving into the spotlight.”

Hamm agreed.

“I do think the fact that he’s talking about it at all is indicative of how much of an issue it’s become for families,” Hamm said. “I don’t think he did it in the right way, but I think it’s emblematic of how much of a crisis this has become.”

Early childhood has long been an area of focus for Clinton, who worked for the Children’s Defense Fund after law school, helped design the federal Child Health Insurance Plan and create Early Head Start during her time as First Lady, and pushed for a comprehensive overhaul of early-childhood policy through her Too Small to Fail campaign at the Clinton Foundation.

On Thursday, Clinton took a swipe at Trump’s child-care proposal at a speech in Warren, Mich.

“His plan was panned from the left, the right, the center, because it transparently is designed for rich people like him,” said Clinton, who spoke at a manufacturing plant.

Clinton has proposed tax relief for families that would keep the cost of child care to no more than 10 percent of their income. She’s also proposed creating paid family leave, expanding Early Head Start, a program for the poorest, youngest children in the country, and raising the qualifications and quality of the early-childhood workforce, among other specific policy changes. Read more about Clinton’s early-education proposals.

Congressional Democrats have also proposed changes to current tax law that would help make child care more affordable, especially for low-income families.

Meanwhile, some child-care expenses are already tax deductible under current tax law. Here’s how Turbo Tax, an online accountant service, explains the current law:

If you paid a day care center, babysitter, summer camp, or other care provider to care for a qualifying child under age 13 or a disabled dependent of any age, you may qualify for a tax credit of up to 35 percent of qualifying expenses of $3,000 for one child or dependent, or up to $6,000 for two or more children or dependents.

Until we get more details from Trump, it will be difficult to estimate how much his plan would cost, since different taxpayers paying different amounts for child care would get different deductions. The U.S. Census Bureau, in a 2013 report called “Who’s Minding the Kids,” said that the average family with a working mother and children under the age of 15 paid $143 a week in child care in 2011, up from $84 a week in 1985. (The 1985 figure was adjusted for inflation.)

Right now, Trump’s proposals are also difficult to compare to Clinton’s, because her campaign has released more detail. Trump’s statement is only a parallel for one small part of the package she’s laid out.

Christina Samuels contributed to this report.

for the latest news on policies, practices, and trends in early childhood education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.