How Conservatives Could Solve the Child Care Crunch

Published July 12, 2021


Child care expenses take a big bite out of working families’ pocketbooks, and the Biden administration thinks it knows how to help. Its American Families Plan—part of the trillions in social spending the White House has proposed—would cap working-class families’ child care payments at 7 percent of household income and introduce universal pre-kindergarten. The problem is, both proposals could actually make child care affordability worse.

For one thing, providers would have less incentive to curb costs, as the federal government would pick up any spending beyond the 7 percent cutoff. Families that don’t qualify for the federal credit would likely see costs increase, especially since the Biden administration pledged that child care would be increasingly “high-quality,” a recipe for more expensive (but not necessarily better) programming. What’s more, universal pre-kindergarten could make it harder for parents to find a slot in the first place. As research from University of South Carolina economist Jessica Brown (full disclosure: reader, I married her) has shown, the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City led to a reduction in supply of child care spots for younger kids.

Instead of subsidizing demand and shrinking supply, a sounder approach to making child care more affordable would be to make the market work better. Conservatives, who understand the power of incentives and recognize the power of markets to drive efficient outcomes, should be offering creative ideas to meet parents’ desires.

Except, of course, that conservatives have a long track record of opposition to federal child care. In 1971, Pat Buchanan successfully convinced President Richard Nixon to veto a child care bill. More recently, author and Senate candidate J.D. Vance called President Biden’s American Families Plan “a massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class.” 

These concerns have some merit. A large-scale child care expansion would place a thumb on the scale against stay-at-home parents, sending a subtle yet unmistakable message that their decision is socially undesirable. A generous family benefit, such as those proposed by Sen. Mitt Romney or Sen. Josh Hawley, would help parents who want to stay home and care for children better afford to do so.

But by focusing so narrowly on families who want to have a parent at home, conservatives often neglect those parents who want child care options that fit their wallet and their values.

While the narrative of skyrocketing child care costs is sometimes overblown, married couples in particular have seen expenses rise in recent decades. If the systemic problems behind this trend go unaddressed, the cost of child care will continue to be a thorn in the side of many parents, contributing, as some research suggests, to the nation’s plummeting birth rates.

In polls, a plurality of parents say their “ideal child care arrangements” are either for children to stay at home with a parent or at a faith-based day care provider. In conjunction with proposing larger child benefits, a truly pro-family agenda would be responsive to these preferences and pursue greater provision of child care by faith-based and non-profit organizations.

If conservatives are serious about opposing progressives’ prescriptions for big-government solutions to child care affordability, they need to come up with proactive ideas beyond just tax credits.

As I argue in a new report for the Niskanen Center, doing so would strengthen families as well as intermediary institutions like churches, synagogues, mosques, ethnic and fraternal organizations and non-profit associations—core components of a healthy, flourishing society. Policymakers could catalyze the non-profit sector’s ability to provide care through forgivable loans, grants and technical assistance for capital improvements or expansion, wage subsidies or other policy tools.

The federal government has two compelling reasons to prioritize faith-based and non-profit child care. Since 2002, the number of non-profit child care establishments have not kept up with population growth, meaning that parents who want faith-based or community-run child care may find it increasingly difficult to find. One in four children in center-based care attended a church-based daycare in 2005; that fraction fell to one in five in 2019.

More importantly, a faith-based or community-run educational environment can create what sociologists call “intergenerational closure“—a web of relationships between adults and children that provide a supportive environment in which the whole child can be nurtured.

While publicly operated or for-profit child care centers can provide a safe place for children, they have to steer away from conversations about moral formation and culturally specific upbringings, which many parents consider essential. When conservatives or racial minorities worry about “government-run daycare,” they have this concern first and foremost.

A pluralistic approach to increasing child care supply would sidestep those concerns, and encourage care in culturally appropriate and supportive settings. A Boise church putting on programming for children whose moms work part-time could receive funding on the same terms as a Brooklyn parents’ collective that offers curricula grounded in specific cultural and ethnic communities.

There is precedent for this approach. Low-income parents are already allowed to use vouchers funded by the Child Care Development Block Grant at religious child care providers, even those that provide religious instruction. Expanding this approach to child care access would, in effect, be a grand bargain—more federal funding aimed at increasing the supply of child care, but in a way that seeks to empower civil society, not supplant it.

This would require more federal funding—the American Rescue Plan’s $24 billion designated for stabilizing child care markets might be a good ballpark amount. It would also require bucking the simple prescription of deregulation that the Right’s ungainly marriage of social conservatism and libertarianism has so often produced.

Many Republicans claim the best way to make child care more affordable is to slash regulations. But the market for child care isn’t like markets for other goods. Assessing quality is difficult, parents want peace of mind and—until the advent of baby-watching robots—productivity growth is unlikely. These market failures cry out for public action.

Yet in child care, as with much of domestic policy, conservatives have an easier time explaining what they’re against than what they’re for. Rhetoric about “day care as class war” fails to recognize that many families—whether they be a two-career suburban couple or a single mom struggling to put food on the table—just want the child care market to work better. And many parents want child care and educational choices that affirm their cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs. A proactive, pro-family agenda would recognize that goal and advance it.

The conservative movement loves to espouse the glories of family values and associational life, and rightly so. But those priorities must be part of a governing agenda, not just buzzwords. Addressing the affordability crunch in child care by investing in parents and local institutions would demonstrate that conservatives’ commitment to those values goes beyond mere lip service.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and was formerly a senior policy advisor for Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

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