Over the past 40 years, the number of women with children under age six who are actively engaged in the U.S. workforce has steadily risen—over 70 percent in 2015. That shift means it’s more important than ever to provide access to quality, affordable childcare. And too often when it comes to childcare, “quality” and “affordable” aren’t a package deal.
Earlier this year, presidential candidate Donald Trump unveiled his proposed childcare plan, which includes tax deductions for families with childcare expenses. It also proposes the creation of savings accounts for families with dependents, along with directives to help communities create those quality/affordable childcare options.
Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, the plan calls for an unprecedented mandate of six weeks’ paid maternity leave—a measure many Americans have been clamoring for in light of generous mandatory paid leave in other countries.
Income Tax Deductions
Everyone loves an income tax deduction. Under Trump’s proposed plan, parents could deduct the cost of childcare from their earned income—even if they don’t take itemized deductions—thus reducing their tax bill. However, the deduction would be capped at the “average cost” of childcare in each particular state, which ranges from $5,000 a year in Mississippi to over $18,000 a year in the District of Columbia.
And while a $5,000 deduction sounds good (and an $18,000 deduction even better) the real savings depends on the taxpayer’s tax bracket. So, using an example from Trump’s own Child Care Fact Sheet, a family earning $70,000 per year in the 12 percent tax bracket with $7,000 in child care expenses would see their taxes reduced by $840—leaving them on the hook for $6,160 in out of pocket childcare costs.
Therefore, parents are—practically speaking—still left with staggering childcare costs, with no tangible way for many families to access higher quality (e.g., more expensive) childcare options. Said another way, most parents would not actually experience a change in circumstances under the plan, as the deduction is capped at a certain amount no matter where the family goes for daily care. While the deduction in taxable income is nice, the root of the issue—access to quality, affordable care—remains unchanged.
One high point, however, is that hard-working stay-at-home parents could access the deduction as well. Furthermore, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit would remain in place and unchanged under the plan, although parents would need to choose between the new tax deduction and the existing tax credit—they couldn’t “double-dip” by taking both.
Dependent Care Savings Accounts
Another component to the proposed plan is the creation of Dependent Care Savings Accounts, or DCSA’s. Similar to a healthcare spending account, families would be allowed to deposit up to $2,000 of pre-tax cash into an account, which can then be used to pay for private schools, preschool, or a similar childcare service. The plan also provides a $500 match for lower-income families per year, but does not specifically spell out what constitutes “lower income.” The accounts would roll over year to year, and any funds remaining at the child’s 18th birthday could be used for higher education expenses. Other highlights include:
- DCSA’s may be implemented by parents, immediate family members, and employers
- A parent may open a DCSA prior to the birth of the child
- Funds may be earmarked for use by an elderly dependent for the costs of long-term care
However, in its current form, the DCSA proposal leaves many questions unanswered. What happens to the cash if the child does not choose to attend college? And what sort of post-secondary education is eligible under the plan? Many students opt for trade schools, or put off college to enroll in the military immediately after graduation from high school. Could families could face a penalty for withdrawing from the account for purposes other than a traditional college or university?
Community and employer solutions
The plan frequently mentions obstacles faced by those living in rural and/or low-income areas. Inevitably, these areas are starved for affordable, quality childcare, and parents are left with very few options. Under the proposed plan, Trump takes aim at current state and federal regulations, which he argues over-emphasize centers as the ultimate solution, while de-emphasizing home-based and other alternative childcare options, such as relying on an informal network of family and friends.
The plan also takes aim at current caregiver/child ratios and what it calls a “counterproductive” focus on quantity versus quality of staff. In addition, the plan recognizes that the vast majority of childcare centers do not cater to those working second and third shifts, leaving these employees with even fewer options.
In response to these issues, Trump’s plan would, as already described, provide tax deductions for non-traditional and home-based childcare arrangements. Moreover, it would incentivize employers to implement a childcare option for their workers. To do this, the plan would make current corporate tax breaks for in-facility childcare “more effective”—expanding the cap and shortening the current ten-year recapture period.
Paid Maternity Leave
The iffiest part of the plan may be the section on paid maternity leave. As described, new mothers would have access to six weeks’ of paid maternity leave time following the birth of their child. The funds would come from existing unemployment insurance policies that (most) employers are required to have, and would seemingly catch the United States up with all other developed nations offering such benefits.
It should be noted that the dollar amount of the paid leave benefit would equal the unemployment benefit the worker would have received had she been laid off. In other words, it would not provide a benefit equal to the mother’s wages.
Moreover, in its proposed form, one glaring issue remains: What about fathers? Studies have shown time and again the importance of father-child bonding time, and the proposal completely ignores the role of the father in the weeks following birth. In addition, the plan does not address adoption, which creates an unclear situation for couples—including same-sex couples—that set out to build their families by adopting privately or through the foster care system.
The childcare and maternity leave plans by the Trump campaign propose some good starting points, but leave many questions unanswered.