Ideas

IDEAS | JOANNA WEISS

Is day care impossible?

Why individual families shouldn’t bear the burden of child-care costs

Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

On the D.C. dinner-party circuit these days, Ivanka Trump is reportedly pushing her pet project: helping women advance in the labor force. As the president’s daughter chats up bigwigs and members of Congress, here’s hoping she’ll bring up the most fundamental challenge for working families: the impossible economics of child care.

To many new parents, the price tag for child care, a non-negotiable, multi-year expense, comes as a gut-wrenching shock. According to the Care Index, created by the think tank New America and Care.com, US parents pay, on average, nearly $800 per month for full-time, center-based care for children under 5. In Massachusetts, that cost is closer to $1,100 per month, about on par with the median state rent and fully a third of the median household income.

These prices, mind you, aren’t making American child-care workers rich; in 2015, their median wage was $9.77 an hour. Operating margins at day-care centers, meanwhile, have historically been thin. It’s not just some elite group of careerists that suffers the consequences. Two-income households are increasingly the norm, due to economic reality; government statistics show that in 2011, 64 percent of mothers of children under 6 were employed, as were more than half of mothers of infants.

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They face a child-care system in disarray, riddled with long waiting lists and general discontent, dragging on economic mobility and sometimes public safety. Which raises a question for Ivanka, and for all of us: At what point should government step in?

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This sounds like a reflexively liberal question, especially at this moment of Republican ascendancy. But it’s actually a question about choices. After all, the idea that government should provide social insurance for the elderly, or pay for education for teenagers, is uncontroversial today, but wasn’t always.

And if we accept that the child care mess is a matter of economic urgency for millions of families, we need to consider a fundamental question: How does society decide what’s a public need, and what isn’t?

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: “If you can’t afford to have kids, don’t.” This argument presumes that children under school age are purely a private matter — unlike older kids, who are everyone’s problem. It also presumes that the current line of demarcation of public and private is inherently logical, maybe even immutable. Recently, a smart friend of mine matter-of-factly told me that K-12 education is a job best done by professionals, while taking care of small children is a job best done by parents. (When pressed, he conceded that what he really meant was “mothers.”)

This is a common American point of view. In fact, as Wellesley professor of education Barbara Beatty points out in an interview, it’s quite close to the argument Richard Nixon used in 1971, when he vetoed a bill to create universal child care. “It would commit the vast moral authority of the national government,” Nixon wrote, “to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” The underlying assumption was that outsourcing the care of the youngest children is immoral, unnecessary, or at the very least, a shame.

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Europeans don’t hold the same preconceptions, says Shoshana Grossbard, an economist at San Diego State University, who notes that publicly subsidized child care and paid parental leave are tools nations use for all sorts of social purposes — including, in Germany and Taiwan, recent efforts to boost fertility rates.

Americans, too, have forever been grappling with whether and how to extend the public sphere, to look out for other people’s kids, for the benefit of families and society. And the history of how those battles have been won offers some clues, for advocates today, about how to make the elusive goal of universal child care a reality.

Though formal education existed in America, in various forms, since the Pilgrim era — the better for children to read the Bible — the first broad push for public education was led in the early 1800s by Massachusetts politician Horace Mann. As a Whig in the Massachusetts House and Senate, Mann was aghast at the state’s hodgepodge of mostly privately funded schools: one-room schoolhouses where children would bring their infant siblings for their farmer parents’ convenience; Quaker-run schools for free slaves; elite private girls’ academies; “Lancasteran schools,” in which one teacher would teach the older students, who would in turn teach the younger ones.

As University of Michigan education historian Maris Vinovskis explains, Mann wanted to impose quality standards, and diminish classroom chaos, by moving education into the public domain. But his opponents argued that, except for the poorest families, education was the parents’ responsibility.

Mann eventually prevailed, Vinovskis says, by traveling to the mills in Lowell and collecting testimonials from superintendents, who talked about how education had boosted the productivity of a largely female workforce. He published a widely circulated pamphlet arguing that education was good for commerce, and therefore, worth the public expense.

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The new system Mann championed was an improvement. But as University of Pennsylvania education historian Jonathan Zimmerman points out, it had an unfortunate side effect: By taking distracting infants out of the schools meant for their older brothers and sisters, it eliminated our first structured system of day care. It wasn’t until nearly century later that advocates would push for a controversial form of education for younger children: a European approach called “kindergarten.”

Its advocates, led by a group of politically savvy pre-suffrage women, described kindergarten as a way station — a “vestibule,” as one supporter put it — between the private sphere of home and the public sphere of school, says Wellesley’s Beatty, author of “Preschool Education in America.”

They recruited powerful industrialists like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to the cause. And they made an argument that fit the time, when a wave of immigration was causing national anxiety: Kindergarten was a tool for assimilation.

“The idea,” Beatty says, “was that you’d get the kids and turn them into model American citizens who were well-behaved, and then you would attract the mothers . . . and they would go home and talk to their husbands.” Public rhetoric was loaded with sentimental “transformation narratives”; in one fictional story by Wheelock College founder Lucy Wheelock, a child brought a lily home from kindergarten, the mother washed a window to help the flower grow, the father was so overwhelmed by his newly bright, clean house that he stopped drinking. Helping children helped families, which helped society.

“And that’s why you got public money,” Beatty says.

At other times, the government has stepped in to subsidize child care — in specific circumstances and small doses. During the Depression, federally funded “emergency nursery schools” existed as much to provide jobs for adults as to care for children. There was comprehensive child care on military bases during World War II, to support a corps of Rosie the Riveters building ships. (Once the crises faded, public funding disappeared.)

In the 1960s, Head Start became a key piece of President Johnson’s War on Poverty; Vinovskis says congressional Republicans were swayed by a developmental psychologist who testified that early education was the key to uplifting poor families.

But while Head Start helped individual families, it hasn’t defeated poverty. And Beatty argues that targeted programs for low-income families stigmatize the broader idea of subsidized child care. To policy makers, Head Start is a program for other people’s children — an exception to the rule that care for children under 5 belongs at home and isn’t a matter of public interest.

Drawing a line at age 5 might have worked in the years immediately after World War II, when one breadwinner could bring home a “family wage,” says Brigid Schulte, who co-wrote a comprehensive New America report on the crippling cost of child care. But “too many people in power still hold onto that two-decade [postwar] period,” she says. “And that was the anomaly.”

Lately, politicians have taken notice. Just this this week in Massachusetts, House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced he’d push for more funding for early childhood education programs. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has proposed using tourism tax revenue to increase access to pre-kindergarten.

And as Schulte notes, the 2016 presidential campaign was the first one in history where both candidates put forth plans about child care and paid leave.

At the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump argued that “policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties, they should be the norm.” Her father’s campaign proposed a dependent care savings account, unlinked to employment, plus an earned income tax credit with an estimated savings of $1,200 for middle-class families. (In Massachusetts, that would cover about a month at an average day-care center.) He also proposed six weeks of paid leave for new mothers only.

Paid leave preserves the private sphere for the smallest children; in today’s discourse, it’s the easier idea to discuss. But Grossbard points to research showing that in some Scandinavian countries — and even in New Jersey — extended paid leave policies have had the effect of lowering women’s labor force participation, as well as their lifetime earnings. And Schulte notes that when Germany offered a generous maternity leave of up to three years, some employers were loath to hire women at all, fearing they’d keep having babies and never return to their jobs.

Subsidized child care, in contrast, would help new parents rejoin the workforce. It would also pay for itself, according to a recent study by Nobel laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. In a modern counterpart to Horace Mann’s argument to Lowell mill owners, Heckman found that for disadvantaged kids ages 0 to 5, good early childhood education can improve health, performance in school, and the chance for employment — and lower costs for taxpayers down the line, to the tune of a 13 percent return on investment.

The upfront cost, of course, would be a challenge. But a bigger one might be abandoning the fundamental idea of a public-private divide, that invisible barrier that, for generations, has kept us from talking about what child care really means. Tackling the crisis of child care will mean reconsidering where the family’s responsibility ends and the public’s responsibility begins.

It’s been done before.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at joanna.weiss@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an outdated affiliation for education historian Jonathan Zimmerman. He is now at the University of Pennsylvania.