John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune

John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune

Commentary: Biden’s childcare plan should empower parents, not limit choices

By Cynthia M. Allen

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It seems like odd timing for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to unveil a plan that would pump billions of dollars into early childhood care and education.

Considering the current ethos, largely espoused by members of his own party, that “virtual learning” is a perfectly adequate means of educating all children and that teachers quite suddenly are “not essential” in the normal functioning of society.

But in announcing his $775 billion plan to solve the “caregiving crisis in America,” Biden is right about a few things.

Families with kids need help.

They are “squeezed emotionally and financially,” he said, and many are forced to make tough decisions about work, school, home life and child care.

Biden wants to help some of those families by offering tax credits of $8,000 per child for working parents earning less than $125,000 annually. He also wants to create nationwide pre-K for all children ages 3 and 4.

The long-term educational benefits of pre-K are worth debating, but let’s stipulate that while it helps some children, for many other families (especially those in higher income brackets), pre-K is effectively publicly funded child care.

Biden and his cohort think that’s a good thing, primarily because such a program would allow more women to enter the workforce, and presumably provide many households with increased incomes, since they wouldn’t be forking over loads of cash for expensive childcare.

That’s probably the same reason his plan offers working families generous tax incentives — to encourage more people to work outside the home.

But what about families that choose to have one parent stay at home?

What about moms (and dads) who voluntarily home-school; who sacrifice careers, professional advancement and salaries for years and years; who downsize and live frugally on a single income so that they can be home with their children?

Biden’s proposal holds nothing for them.

In fact, instead of incentivizing parents to make the choice that is best for their families — which isn’t always a dual-income household with both parents working full time outside the home — Biden’s plan intentionally harms and excludes parents who stay home.

That’s inequitable, short-sighted and wrong.

To be sure, in the era of COVID, quarantine and social isolation, families have been cooped up for weeks on end, and many parents would love a little separation from their kids.

But in more normal circumstances, that isn’t usually the case.

Studies and data show that while many moms who stay home would prefer to be working (an estimated 7.3 million in 2015), more than twice as many (an estimated 17.8 million) work and would prefer to stay home.

Indeed, “preference mismatch” is significantly more common among working women, who would rather be home or putting in fewer hours, than among mothers who find themselves “stuck” at home.

The problem is too many women who would choose to be home don’t have the option for financial reasons — even after factoring in the cost of child care.

And offering them free or subsidized childcare wouldn’t help them to stay home.

A better solution to the “caregiving crisis” would be a child allowance, which would empower parents to make their own choices about what is best for their kids and family life. Working parents could use the allowance for child care; parents who want to stay home would be less cash-strapped.

It would be cost-effective and wouldn’t force families to choose a single approach to family life.

And no one would be financially penalized for their choice.

In addition to his one-size-fits-all solution to childhood caregiving, Biden wants to increase salaries for professional caregivers, who he said “are too often underpaid, unseen and undervalued.”

So are stay-at-home parents.

During these unusual times, when parents are literally doing all the things — teaching, working, maintaining households — policymakers (and wannabe presidents) should be proposing ways to strengthen and empower families, not prop-up government institutions. Because we know just how reliable they are these days.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.