A review of Obama's child care proposals.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 17 2010 9:33 AM

Will Obama Help You Get Decent Child Care?

He's the first president to care about it, at least.

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As the single-largest funding increase to the child care block-grant in more than 20 years, the money in the 2011 budget would begin to relieve the tremendous logjam of people now waiting for low-cost care. Because some of the money is supposed to be set aside for quality improvement, the much-needed infusion will hopefully reduce the number of infants confined to their cribs for lack of arms to hold them and throngs of toddlers left to their own devices. Altogether, it should also pay for another 235,000 children to come off waiting lists and into government-subsidized child care, a number that sounds huge when you realize what it means to get just one kid out of such horrifying circumstances and tiny when you consider it's less than 2 percent of the total number who could use the help.

Still, there is at least a block grant, however inadequate, to address the child care woes of the poorest families. For most of the rest of us, who also face the exorbitant price of child care, there is only a tax break to help offset the cost. The new budget would allow families that make up to $85,000 a year to deduct 35 percent of their child care expenses, a significant jump up from the current 20 percent. (Those making up to $115,000 a year will also be able to claim deductions, though at a lower percentage.)

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The problem is that the caps on the maximum amount parents can claim as expenses would remain at their current, extremely outdated levels—$3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two—which would mean a family's child care tax credit would max out at just $1,050 for one kid and $2,100 for two or more.

Few can sneeze at $2,100—at least until they see that number beside the actual price of child care. In Massachusetts, it cost $15,895 to keep an infant in full-time care at a center in 2008, the most recent year for which the numbers have been crunched. While Massachusetts was the most expensive state in the country (the annual costs go as low as $4,560 in Mississippi), both numbers are still a statewide average of all the care—good, bad, relatively cheap, and expensive. High-quality, licensed care, in which caretakers have appropriate training, if it is available at all, can run upward of $20,000 per year per child in some cities. Double that and suddenly $2,100 starts to seem pretty pathetic.

In its inadequacy, the tax credit "fix" helps highlight just how deep and intractable our child care problems are. The idea of increasing the amount of child care costs parents can claim has been knocking around for some years. Though the proposal didn't make it into the budget, there's a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would link the cap to inflation. Had that been done back in 1982, when the cap was $2,400 for one child, it would now be $5,336 for one child and $10,672 for two, according to the calculations of Joan Entmacher, vice president and director of family economic security at the National Women's Law Center. "And that would just get us back to where we were 30 years ago."

Still, Entmacher, a longtime advocate for working parents, is acutely aware of both the more frugal approach Obama took in other areas of the budget and the total disinterest past presidents have shown to child care. While she notes that the new budget falls "far short of meeting need," she says, without irony, that overall she's "pleased."

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Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at fastlerner@gmail.com.

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