Beaurocrats V. Parents: Who Knows Best for Pre-schoolers?

28 May 2021

With record-low rates of births and marriages combined with COVID-related economic hardship, family policy initiatives have taken on renewed urgency in the US. President Biden’s solution – the American Families Plan – has sparked criticism from those who interpret it as imposing a view of family not shared by the majority of the people who most need the help.

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In February 2021, Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney proposed the Family Security Act to ameliorate the cost of raising children, and eliminate the “marriage penalties” in existing programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicare, in which single parents have advantages over married ones. The New York Times Editorial Board ran its opinion under the headline “Mitt Romney Has a Plan, and Joe Biden Should Borrow From It.” Yet, the plan that Biden put forward differs not only in details, but in philosophy. Romney defended his plan in his own New York Times editorial titled “Family Policy Shouldn’t Penalize Married and Stay-at-Home Parents.” He credited President Biden with correctly identifying the problem (that American families need help), but called his plan a “temporary, partisan solution.”

To explain his vision in even plainer terms, Romney participated in a Family Matters webcast on Thursday 27th that was moderated by W. Bradford Wilcox: “Cash or Childcare. What Do American Parents Want?”

The title was telling, because it got to the heart of the issue most riling opponents of Biden’s plan. Opponents claim that the Democratic legislation ties aid to government-approved, center-based childcare, ignoring a majority preference for other ways of caring for pre-school-age children. 

“Our view is don’t give the money to the centers – give the money to the parents,” the senator explained. “Instead of sending hundreds of millions of dollars to government-approved childcare centers… we instead say we will provide that funding to families and let the families decide how they want to care for their children,” he went on. “Parents know better… so give parents the resources to make their own choice.” 

This view is in stark contrast to the president’s plan, which openly states its preference for parents who work outside the home and pay for childcare. In its own fact sheet, the White House follows its stated commitment to “provide direct support to children and families” with the assertion, “our nation is strongest when everyone has the opportunity to join the workforce and contribute to the economy. But many workers struggle to both hold a full-time job and care for themselves and their families.”

Yet this ignores data from a recent research brief coauthored by another of the webinar participants - Margarita Mooney Suarez, Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary -revealing that holding full-time jobs while caring for children is not the expressed preference of a majority of Americans. In fact, only 18% of Americans polled in the American Compass Home Building Survey (2021) considered the best arrangement for child rearing to be two parents in full-time employment with children in paid, full-time day care. A significant majority (75%) prefer home care provided by a parent (58%) or a relative (11%), or one parent in part-time work with part-time paid childcare (17%).

The Administration worries that “unfortunately, many children, but especially children of color and low-income children, do not have access to the full range of high-quality pre-school programs available to their more affluent peers.” Yet only those affluent families tend to prefer that arrangement. Thirty-one percent of parents with annual incomes over $100,000 cite full-time paid care as their preferred arrangement, while only around half as many lower- and middle-income families would choose that set up (15% of lower earners and 17% of middle-range earners). 

Importantly, some groups – like non-college-educated white parents and Hispanic parents – are currently in a situation of using paid childcare despite their preference not to. While only 13% of the former group and 14% of the latter prefer paid childcare, 30% use it. This is in contrast to the more balanced desire for and use of such care by college-educated, white parents – 30% of whom prefer that method, and 38% of whom use it.

It is true that there are wide differences in parental attitudes towards work and family.  There is no arrangement favored by everyone. Yet there is substantial evidence that more parents prefer some degree of home care for their children – especially in less-educated and lower-income cohorts. So, the question begs an explanation: why would public policy attempt to steer more parents into the workforce?