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On Child Care, the Democrats Have It All Wrong

The problem isn't that moms can't afford to work; it's that they can't afford to stay at home.
Elizabeth Warren

In the most recent Democratic presidential debate, the candidates made the case for a massive new policy initiative: government-run universal child care. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, argued that “too many mamas and daddies today are getting knocked off the track and never get back on” because of the burdensome imposition of newborn children. Pete Buttigieg piled on, insisting that when a mother leaves the workforce for “that reason,” her career is at serious risk.

For progressives, universal child care is the logical solution to the difficult task of raising kids. But although such proposals are presumably well-intentioned, voters should be skeptical of attempts to replace traditional parenting obligations with the hollow imitations of faceless government employees.

As the Democratic Party increasingly becomes the home of upwardly mobile elite progressives, its political priorities and worldview are morphing to reflect that electoral shift. This change portends a decline in concerns over traditional family life, which exerts little pull for ambitious young coastal professionals. Consequently, it’s no surprise that the party now supports outsourcing child-rearing duties to the state.

Progressives claim these initiatives would increase economic productivity. But are children merely obstacles to the financial success of their parents? And is the true measure of a person their contribution to national GDP growth? These assumptions seem to be implicit in the rhetoric of politicians like Warren and Buttigieg, who justify their plans by harping on the economic cost of natalism.

Ironically enough, despite their persistent denunciations of the “neoliberal” market economy, the progressive champions of universal child care seem surprisingly willing to trade parenthood for financial gain. Those who value the social and civic role of the family should eye such proposals with deep suspicion. Wrote the late Roger Scruton:

A free society is a community of free beings, bound by the laws of sympathy and by the laws of family love. It is not a society of people released from all moral constraint – for that is precisely the opposite of a society. Without moral constraint there can be no cooperation, no family commitment, no long-term prospects, no hope of economic, let alone social, order.

If one holds that the maximization of individual economic and career potential is the highest good humans can achieve—as many proponents of government-funded universal child care seem to—core institutions like the family, which serve as crucial civic progenitors of moral constraint and social responsibility, disintegrate.

But the sacred task of raising a child is not a burden that ought to be sloughed off onto the state. Some things are more important than career advancement.

Having a child is no easy task, to be sure. But shouldn’t adults enter parenthood understanding the responsibilities and obligations that it entails?

Bringing new life into this world requires significant sacrifice, something a majority of Americans seem to understand. In fact, the progressive attempt to usher more parents into the workforce is significantly out of step with national public opinion. As John Hirschauer writes in National Review, “nearly 60 percent of Americans – and a majority of both registered Republicans and registered Democrats – believe that children are better off with one parent at home than they would be in a day-care arrangement.”

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias concurs, writing, “women dropping out of the workforce because they can’t afford child care may be a less common scenario than it seems. More common is probably the reverse…a parent who might prefer to stay home full time or part time but can’t afford to.” Polling data seems to support this assertion—according to a 2015 Gallup poll, 56 percent of women and 26 percent of men with children younger than 18 “would ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family.”

Luckily, there are alternative policy options that can help relieve the financial stress that children can bring without forcing the dissolution of the family. One particularly successful example is an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which offers struggling low-income families tax breaks based on the number of children they have. The CTC received a massive expansion under the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017, and the returns on this policy have exceeded even the most optimistic predictions—according to a recent Niskanen Center report, the expansion of the CTC lifted more than 750,000 Americans out of poverty in 2018. And almost half of them were children.

Perhaps most significant of all, this was not accomplished by pushing parents out of their homes and alienating them from their children. Rather, it simply made it easier for them to perform their essential parenting duties by leaving more money in their pockets.

Policies like the CTC demonstrate that raising a child doesn’t have to be antithetical to financial stability, despite progressive claims to the contrary. Children shouldn’t be viewed as a barrier to career advancement, but rather as a gift to be cherished. This is a view that seems to be foreign to the Democratic candidates, who lament the lost economic opportunities incurred by stay-at-home parents. But human dignity transcends market value. And children deserve parents who are present and invested.

Nate Hochman is a Young Voices contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @njhochman.