President Trump portrays himself as an expert at marketing designer ties and gourmet steaks, but now, as chief executive of federal social policy, his new childcare plan might be a tougher sell. The promise he has made of universal childcare, accompanied by a marketing campaign led by his glamorous career-woman daughter Ivanka, sounded family-friendly enough on the campaign trail. But to childcare advocates, the vague talking points he laid out in his first speech to Congress last month don’t add up for working poor parents.
According to the broad outlines of the plan reported so far, Trump wants to fund childcare through the tax code with a package of cuts and deductions. This would skew benefits toward well-off married couples, while offering the poorest parents perhaps just a few dollars a month.
Tolanda Barnette, a teacher and single mom in North Carolina, can’t make Trump’s math work for families like hers. As she supports five children, ranging from 6 years old to college-aged, she has never earned enough to afford a decent program in her area.
“It only benefits those of the wealthy [incomes] so it doesn’t benefit the people at the bottom,” she says of Trump’s plan. And as a daycare educator herself, earning just $12 an hour, she knows all too well how it feels to be excluded from the services every family needs.
She had to leave work to care for her young son for his first five years, as he got stuck on a waiting list for a childcare voucher: “Being a childcare provider…who knows the extent of what a voucher can do for you as a whole, it sucked,” she recalls. So she stayed home to care for her family because her wages couldn’t cover basic needs. “I would be working to pay daycare, then I wouldn’t be able to pay bills.”
Critics warn that Trump’s limited benefit scheme would only further polarize privileged and working-poor families, who in many cases are already priced out of care altogether. The Tax Policy Center calculates that, through the combination of credits and deductions Trump is promoting, “About 70 percent of benefits go to families with at least $100,000 and 25 percent of benefits go to families with at least $200,000.”
This highly regressive payment structure, moreover, would provide extremely low benefits, from about $10 annually for poor families. A typical single mom earning minimum wage in Michigan would receive less than $50 per month, for example, for childcare fees that often exceed $8,400 annually. Even families earning up to $500,000 would receive about $460 annually. The bottom line for parents is that work doesn’t pay: “[C]hild care expenses would still be 51 percent of her income, providing her little incentive to work in the paid labor force instead of caring full time for her child herself.”
According to New York University social-policy analyst Ajay Chaudry, while Trump’s plan funnels the bulk of the benefits to the affluent, who might in many cases not even need a subsidy to pay for top-notch programs, working-class households who “are limited in the childcare they can afford and have lower quality options, get very little or nothing.”
Chaudry has developed an alternative national plan that would actually narrow the affordability gap, providing nearly all the benefits to those earning under $70,000—through a state-administered program, regulated to ensure quality standard services. Care for newborn would be about $1,200 per month, over 10 times what Trump’s scheme offers. Anything less would be simply unrealistic for a working-class household like Barnette’s—who represents the over 40 percent of workers earning less than $15 an hour nationwide. Many poor parents don’t even earn enough to pay federal income taxes; they receive at most a limited low-income annual tax rebate. Meanwhile, childcare in North Carolina typically costs more than state college tuition.
“When tax cuts are promised, there is an expectation people will be glad to hear there’s a cut coming, even if it is highly skewed and everyday parents see very little of it,” Chaudry argues. “Deductions would not support childcare quality or stability, particularly for middle and lower-income families who would need it most.”
Trump’s childcare proposal has also been tacked onto a similarly half-baked scheme for subsidized family leave, which is limited only to maternity care, leaving out other essential needs like family medical emergencies, and funded through already under-financed state unemployment insurance budgets.
And for childcare providers, Trumpcare is anything but universal: The lack of reliable comprehensive funding streams would make working conditions and wages more volatile across the care sector, where childcare programs vary wildly in quality, from formal Head Start programs to chronically underfunded community centers, which struggle to sustain overworked and underpaid staff.
Marcy Whitebook of the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, says that though details of Trump’s plan are still unclear, to meet the overarching long-term funding challenges, “Fiddling with our tax credits may be better than not, but it doesn’t get to the complexity of the issue of access to quality care.” To achieve truly equitable childcare investment as “a public good,” ensuring high-quality programs and livable wages for workers, she said, policymakers need a comprehensive approach that would “break the link what parents pay and what people doing the work themselves are paid…. We have to think about how to structure [reform] so we’re dealing with the problems of quality, affordability and access at once.”
Barnette feels the pain of the cost curve in both her work and her family life. Quality care for her family has, ironically, been a luxury she couldn’t afford on a daycare teacher’s wages. “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, and you want to work, and it’s so hard to get childcare around here…. It makes it so hard for you to just breathe and live.”
As Barnette works to educate the children of others but struggles to provide the same for her own, she says, “I would like to see some type of system set up where everybody can afford it. Not just the rich…. Everybody’s child deserves to have that head start in life. I would like, as a teacher, as a childcare provider, I would like to be paid enough where I don’t have to go down to the Department of Social Services and ask them to help me pay my light bill.”
She doesn’t need Trump to make childcare “great,” just make it fair: “We’re not in it for the money but we still would like to live as well…. We’re just surviving right now, we’re not living…. There’s a big difference.”