Early Childhood

Advocates Encouraged by Candidates’ Early-Years Focus

By Christina A. Samuels & Lillian Mongeau — August 22, 2016 5 min read
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After both presidential candidates touched on early-childhood issues in high-profile speeches recently, advocates were united on one thing: They want to see that conversation continue.

Both Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, talked about child-care costs during addresses on economic policy. Trump floated the idea of a child-care tax deduction at an Aug. 8 appearance before the Detroit Economic Club. Three days later, Clinton reminded audiences of her proposal to make child-care costs no more than a relatively small proportion of a family’s income at an appearance at a manufacturing plant in Warren, Mich.

“Overall, it’s really exciting that early childhood appears to be getting on the map at this point,” said Katharine B. Stevens, who leads the early-childhood program at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “That reflects the growing understanding that the public has that the first five years of children’s lives really lay the foundation for everything that follows.”

Katie Hamm, the senior director for early-childhood policy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the fact that Trump was talking about child-care affordability is “emblematic of how much of a crisis this has become.”

At the same time, however, supporters of public investment in early childhood said that the early-childhood workforce—usually made up of women who are often earning wages that put them on par with fast-food workers—needs to be a part of the discussion as well.

The cost of care should probably be higher because child-care workers are so underpaid,” said Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning for the National Women’s Law Center, which champions women’s rights. “There has to be a plan that can meet the needs of all families and the people who care for them.”

First Mention for Trump

Deborah Phillips, who co-wrote two reports on the state of the child-care workforce, is looking for leaders who understand that child-care quality cannot be linked directly to what families are able to pay. The military child-care system, for example, requires fees that are based on a family’s income, but all children, no matter their family’s income, attend the same high-quality centers.

“That entails a recognition that child care provides benefits to a society as a whole,” said Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “We can’t pull out single strands of this much broader issue and address them one at a time, when they’re all interrelated.”

Trump’s foray into child-care policy was a noteworthy pivot to a domestic-policy issue that had not been at the forefront of his campaign before that point. In an emailed statement to the news media 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.”

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, has been a high-profile voice within his campaign on family issues. At the Republican National Convention, she said that “as a mother myself of three young children, I know how hard it is to work while raising a family, and I also know that I am far more fortunate than most. American families need relief. Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm.”

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 younger than 15 paid $143 a week in child care in 2011, up from $84 weekly in 1985. (The 1985 figure was adjusted for inflation.)

Tax analysts noted that a tax deduction would most benefit families with high incomes, not low-income people who do not pay any taxes at the end of the year.

“A tax deduction is not a good way to do this,” said Hamm of the Center for American Progress. “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.”

Clinton’s response to Trump’s comments was to criticize him for being late to the party—while offering up her own policy proposals.

“Previously, he dismissed concerns about child care. He said it was, quote, ‘not an expensive thing’ because you just need some blocks and some swings. Now he says he wants to exclude child-care payments from taxation. His plan was panned from the left, the right, the center—because it transparently is designed for rich people like him,” she said.

Clinton has proposed tax relief for families that would keep the cost of child care to no more than 10 percent of their income. Such a plan would require a large public investment in tax credits and subsidized child-care programs.

She has also proposed doubling the current investment in Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women and children from infancy through age 3. Early Head Start was created in 1994, during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton. Currently, Early Head Start and the traditional Head Start program for 4-year-olds are budgeted at $8.6 billion in total.

Investing in Younger Children

Rather than focusing on existing funding streams such as Head Start, Stevens of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that lawmakers think about what they would like to achieve with a public investment in early childhood.

“What the developmental science is telling us is that what’s most important is to be focusing on the youngest children with the biggest needs,” said Stevens, who recently conducted an analysis of early-childhood research. Her conclusion was that programs aimed at the youngest children—such as home-visiting programs, which connect at-risk families with counselors—show more evidence of benefit than preschool programs.

These young children “don’t need more school; they need a higher-quality environment that supports their early development,” she said. “We need to start with our end goal in sight.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Advocates Encouraged by Candidates’ Early-Years Focus

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