Childcare Policy Needs Coherent Advocates

The Problem

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama listed numerous policies intended to help middle-class families, including a proposal for additional assistance for child care. Days after the SOTU, a White House blog piece by Betsey Stevenson indicated that child care is an issue for women as well as a financial security issue. According to the post, 63% of American families do not have a parent at home to care for children. Traditionally, since men are considered ‘breadwinners,’ it is a choice for women to work or not, and if they choose to work, then they are responsible for finding solutions for child care.  The cost of center-based child care in 3 out of 5 states is indicated to be higher than the cost of tuition to a four-year college. This is consistent with reported figures in 2006 from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) which indicate the average cost of center-based child care as between $3000 and $13,000 per year.  In the past, child care policy has often been connected to other welfare policies. Many of the current national policies for childcare focus on the most vulnerable groups such as children in poverty and/or children with disabilities.

Current Potential Solutions

Stevenson’s piece mentions several proposals that the President is pushing to address these problems. They include investing in the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF), simplifying and increasing tax credits for young children with an emphasis on assisting the middle class, and creating an innovation fund for states to “…better serve families who face unique challenges in securing access to child care.” Several of these proposals appear to be contained in The Right Start Child Care and Education Act of 2015, a bill introduced in both the House (HR 2703) and the Senate (S 446). These bills modify the Internal Revenue Tax Code by increasing the tax credit rates for employer-provided child care facilities and increasing the tax exclusion for employer-provided dependent care assistance. Additionally, they allow for a new $2,000 tax credit for child care providers who hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, child care, or a related degree, and who provide at least 1,200 hours of child care services in a taxable year. The House and Senate bills also increase the eligibility threshold amount and rate of the household and dependent care tax credit and make such credit refundable. These bills have been introduced in their respective bodies and assigned to the Ways and Means Committee in the House and the Finance Committee in the Senate; however, no hearings have been scheduled.

One key question that arises when considering these policy options is which specific issues within child care are being targeted. The objective of the CCDF is to assist poor children, so the “landmark investment” in that program seems to be focused on low-income families. The new tax proposals apply to the “middle class,” so that may be a more universal approach. The focus of the “innovation fund” on families with “unique challenges” isn’t clearly in support of poor families, but it suggests a focus on a subset of families rather than all families. The Right Start Child Care and Education Act does have a universal focus for the most part, except one small aspect of the bill that would make the dependent child care tax credit refundable. A refundable tax credit allows those who do not have to pay taxes (low-income families) the ability to receive a tax credit.

Advocacy Coalitions – Lacking Coherent Beliefs

One of the several theories that suggest ways in which policies are developed and passed focuses on actors forming coalitions based on shared core beliefs in policies. Jenkins-Smith, Nohrstedt, Weible, and Sabatier (2014) define advocacy coalitions as “actors that share policy core beliefs who coordinate their actions in a nontrivial manner to influence a policy subsystem.”

Do child care policy advocates have coherent policy core beliefs? Evidence suggests that advocates that support the expansion of child care policy in the US are not closely connected on core beliefs.  In interviews conducted with 20 different child care advocacy groups, Palley found that the groups used one of four frames when discussing child care policy: (1) Child care is necessary for poor mothers to allow them to work; (2) Poor children are disadvantaged and thus need additional services; (3) Create universal pre-K programs; (4) All families need assistance with child care. This final universal frame of the issue includes tax breaks and a quality rating for childcare facilities. Only one group indicated a focus on the universal child care approach. Palley’s research indicates that although these groups use many similar terms such as “early childhood education”, which suggests that they have very similar policy core beliefs, the priorities of these organizations actually differ. This makes a true advocacy coalition unlikely to form.

When President Obama elected to include child care policy in his most recent State of the Union, the potential for reform was illuminated. Shortly after this, the Right Start Child Care Act was drafted. However, the advocacy coalition for child care policy change is somewhat fractured. Due to the coalition’s lack of unity, they are not in the best position to take advantage of child care reform being a top-tier policy issue for the administration. The minor changes in these bills may get passed, but this is unlikely to open the floodgates to further change that many advocates (and parents of young children like me) would support.

Hope for the future?

Early Childhood Education has started to gain traction in several states. Perhaps using the states as a forum to push for policy changes to support families who need child care will eventually help to open the federal government for additional reform.

Topics: Childcare