Donald Trump went looking for political gold, and he may have found it in a proposal to make all childcare costs deductible from taxable income. His recent slide in the polls has been attributed to the defection of college-educated men, plus women in all demographics, and if there’s one issue that is near and dear to these voting groups, it’s the high cost of caring for their children while they’re working.
“It will help the upper middle class,” declared California Rep. Brad Sherman. A tax lawyer before entering Congress, Sherman, a Democrat, pointed out that three-quarters of taxpayers don’t itemize their deductions and would not benefit from a new deduction.
“Democrats push for credits that tend to phase out once you hit $150,000 income, and Republicans tend to like deductions,” which disproportionately benefit those at the upper end of the income scale, he said. What Trump has proposed is a far cry from underwriting universal quality childcare, which is what Ivanka Trump promised her father would do in her convention speech last month. In his address to the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, Trump offered no details on his childcare proposal, other than to say he was working on it with Ivanka, who has three young children, including an infant, and his economic team, which he of course said is the very best.
The immediate response to Trump’s proposal from those who study the issue was negative in terms of its viability, and those it would benefit. “Mr. Trump’s proposal will do nothing for those most in need. And we can’t afford it,” said Robert Doar with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “There are better, more effective ways to help struggling families through targeted tax credits for low-wage working parents.”
Ron Haskins, the former Republican House staffer who helped design the welfare reform bill of the 1990s and is now with the Brookings Institute, said that on the surface, it looks like Trump is offering a family-friendly policy, but the only way to include the 50 percent of Americans who don’t earn enough to pay taxes would be to make their childcare refundable, making the program even more expensive. “You can spend 20 billion a year before you bat an eyelash, and more than that if you’re talking about quality,” he said. “It could be very, very expensive.”
Doar of AEI said his first reaction to Ivanka Trump’s proposal at the convention was “pretty negative.” It seemed to come out of nowhere. He hadn’t seen anything about the issue in the campaign, or on the website, and he doubted Trump’s conviction and consistency. It sounded to him like “a blanket commitment that has a big phony component to it.”
Trump’s speech in Detroit didn’t lessen his skepticism. “It’s also not very cost effective, and it doesn’t really help the people most in need,” he said. “Targeted efforts at the most vulnerable are most successful.”
Hillary Clinton has said that no family should pay more than 10 percent of its income for high quality childcare. She has proposed a combination of tax credits and government funding, but she has not costed it out the way she has other programs. There’s a reason for that: it’s expensive, and it’s unlikely a gridlocked Congress would take it up as a first priority.
Families spend an average of $10,000 a year on childcare, and under current law, can deduct up to $6,000 from their federal taxes to cover childcare costs.
Doar is from New York and says he’s had exposure to Trump and the way he does business. “He will buy off a problem as opposed to solve it,” he told The Daily Beast. “These are hard issues, the work supports we put in place, and how they work. I don’t think he has any kind of depth on the issue. Clinton has made a big commitment too, and there’s a bit of over-promising, but she has greater depth and knowledge of the way things really work. She’s also a Democrat, and she comes from the desire to expand government.”
According to a report prepared by the CAP Action War Room, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, Trump, when asked about childcare programs in the past, has ducked the issue, saying that instead of a federal policy, private companies could provide it easily on site with “some blocks and swings.”
Trump’s play for the working dads and moms vote may be opportunistic, but it marks a societal change in cultural norms. The last serious effort to get government-funded childcare occurred 45 years ago, in 1971, when congressional Republicans and Democrats alike banded together to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act to create federally funded childcare centers across the country.
Women were entering the work force in big numbers for the first time, and the centers would have been open to all children with tuition subsidized by the government for those who qualified. The cost was $2 billion a year for the first two years, which is the equivalent of some $10 billion today. The co-sponsors were John Brademas of Indiana and Walter Mondale, the future vice president.
The Senate passed the Brademas-Mondale bill 67-17, and President Nixon vetoed it. Then Special Assistant Pat Buchanan wrote the message of Nixon’s veto. saying it wasn’t good for America to embrace the Communist form of child rearing. Nixon warned of “a long leap into the dark” with a program to “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over the family-centered approach.”
We have come full circle with Trump, led by his daughter into the 21st century to recognize the reality of most people’s lives, and where they look to government for help and support. It may not happen this cycle. Trump may not be serious, and his proposal wouldn’t help the people who need help the most. But it’s probably a signal that universal childcare is coming, and it won’t take another 45 years.