Policy Experts Debate Childcare Reform at Brookings Event

By Katrina Schmidt

Scholars and policy experts agreed that the current childcare system – or lack thereof – in the United States needs urgent changes but debated which policy levers are best suited to address the challenge at a recent event hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project.

The conversation featured remarks by U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, followed by a panel with: University of Minnesota economics professor Elizabeth Davis; University of Utah assistant finance professor Elena Spatoulas Patel; Institute for Women’s Policy Research President and CEO C. Nicole Mason; and American Enterprise Institute Director of Economic Policy Studies Michael Strain. The discussion was moderated by The Hamilton Project Director Wendy Edelberg.

During the pandemic, 2.5 million women left the workforce, many because of a lack of childcare options. However, the childcare crisis existed well before COVID-19, Raimondo noted, and families with two working parents or single parents often struggle to meet their childcare needs.

“If women continue to fall out of the workforce at the same rate they did at the beginning of the pandemic, the economy will lose $64 billion annually,” Mason said.

A proposal from Davis and her University of Minnesota colleague Aaron Sojourner to make childcare available to all families that need it and a proposal from Patel for a federal paid leave program were the focal points of the event. Davis and Sojourner’s vision for childcare would enable every family to access care from a center, home-based, or school-based provider, with the cost to families depending on their income-to-poverty ratio.

Their proposal recommends that this program replace the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) along with other care-related tax credits, which are often favored by policymakers for their bipartisan approach. Strain expressed concerns that federally subsidized childcare could drive up costs for families and limit family choice. 

“Why not just give families with kids more money so they can do what they want with it, which may include childcare,” Strain said. Strain favors cash benefits targeting low-income families.

Currently, the U.S. spends less on young children than older children. Davis and Sojourner’s report notes that public spending is less than $500 for children under 3, $2,800 for 3- or 4-year-olds, and $12,800 for elementary school students. Mason emphasized that while there is reason for debate on which policy options could resolve the childcare crisis, the most pressing issue is that the system does not currently meet many families’ needs.

“I find it very interesting that we start talking about the cost of these things by the government or by employers, but we don’t start talking about ‘If we don’t do this, what is the cost,’” Mason said. “We have an opportunity to invest and build a robust social infrastructure once and for all.”