Just days after the Center for American Progress calculated that Donald Trump’s proposed child-care plan would barely benefit low- and middle-income families, the administration is changing its approach. The Trump administration is reportedly revising its plan from a tax deduction to a tax credit in response to criticism from child-care advocates who noted that low-income families, who need assistance the most, won’t see the benefit of a deduction from their $0 in tax liability.
Trump’s previous proposal would have given families benefits proportional to their tax brackets and the average cost of child care where they live. Families earning up to $500,000 would have gotten several thousands of dollars, while average Americans in counties that swung right for Trump in the election would have been able to deduct up to a whopping $20 a year from their tax burden. One estimate, from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, held that 70 percent of the cost of the plan would have gone to benefit families earning $100,000 or more a year.
The new proposal, a senior administration official told the Washington Post, will instead add to the existing Child and Dependent Care Credit, which currently lets parents take up to $2,100 off their income tax bill for child-care expenses. It’s worth 20 to 35 percent, depending on income, of up to $6,000 for two children, or $3,000 for one. Trump is reportedly drafting a proposal that would raise the maximum value of the credit, with a cap on how much wealthier families can benefit. The credit isn’t refundable right now—so families with no income tax liability don’t get any benefit—but the Trump administration is considering changing that in its next proposal.
This sounds like an improvement over the initial plan, but a few extra dollars around tax time won’t make a significant difference in the lives of people struggling to pay child-care bills that come every week or month throughout the year. “The bottom line is you can’t pay for high-quality child care with money that you don’t have,” Julie Kashen, policy director at family-policy campaign Make It Work, told Slate. “And this plan is just too little too late, for too few people. … The bottom line is that we need a much bigger solution: something that can cut child care costs for families so that no one has to pay more than 10 percent of their income, make sure they get help when bills are due, and make sure that child-care providers are paid a living wage.”
Kashen says the tax code does not hold the answers to the conundrum of affordable child care, the lack of which is a major factor in women leaving the workforce. Instead, she says, the government should make a larger investment in funds like the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a federal program that gives states money to offer subsidized child-care services to low-income families. This kind of program offers immediate assistance to families who don’t have the capacity to save up and wait for a discount at tax time, and it focuses benefits on families who need them most without wasting millions of dollars on wealthy families who can already afford good child care.
The most troubling element of the new proposal Trump is considering is “[taking] steps to ease regulations to allow more child-care operations.” It’s true that one of the many interrelated aggravators of America’s current child-care dilemma is a dire shortage of providers. But child-care centers are already barely regulated in most places, save cities such as D.C., where workers must have an unnecessary college degree. Parents looking for a place to leave their children while they’re at work will find a wide range of quality and safety in the centers they see, and because of the limited supply, they won’t always get their pick. This isn’t an industry hobbled by overreaching regulations—when daycare centers aren’t safe, children die.
A better response to the child-care shortage would be, again, subsidies. Child-care workers in the U.S. make a median hourly wage of $10.31, compared to $17 in all other lines of work, and more than 90 percent don’t make enough to achieve a “modest yet adequate living standard” for one person. If the industry offered better pay, more people would pursue child-care work, but it’s hard to pay bigger wages without making care more prohibitively expensive than it already is. A smart, effective child-care plan would address both these issues at once.
But Trump, who has boasted about how little he participated in his children’s upbringing, has a skewed idea of what child care actually entails. During his campaign, Trump suggested that the answer to affordable child care lies in on-site care offered by companies. “You need one person or two people, and you need some blocks and you need some swings and some toys,” he said. “You know, surely, it’s not expensive.” One or two adults would be fine—but only if there were just a handful of kids. Thankfully, there are regulations for that.