Working parents are an endangered species. That’s why Democrats are talking child care

DEMOCRATS’ child-care proposals, such as the plan put forward by Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, last week, target an increasingly rare breed: the working parent.

Parents make up a smaller share of the United States (US) labour force now than at any other time in at least a century, according to our analysis of Census Bureau and Labour Department data. But it’s not because parents aren’t working. It’s because workers aren’t becoming parents.

In that way, Warren’s plan to provide care for all children up to age five, free for low-income families and discounted for others, reaches beyond today’s working parents. It even reaches beyond all those who stay home because they can’t afford child care.

Democratic presidential candidates are targetting the substantial group of Americans who avoid having children because they can’t afford the estimated USD233,610 it would take to raise a child to age 18. (That number doesn’t include lost earnings.)

We focussed on parents with children age five and under, but working parents are vanishing across the age spectrum. About 41 per cent of workers between the ages of 20 and 54 have a child at home, down from 62 per cent in 1968.

Children return to a child-care centre in Washington after a trip outside

The number of working parents is falling not just because parents have decided to stay home. The share of parents of children under age five who are working or looking for work has remained steady, between 77 and 79 per cent, since the late 1990s. Through March 2018, the most recent month for which comparable data is available, it’s at 78 per cent.

Instead, it’s likely that working Americans are having fewer children or avoiding parenthood altogether. Birth rates and fertility rates, which account for the number of women of childbearing age, are at their lowest levels on record, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The record extends from 1909 to 2016, the most recent year for which we have data.

Americans are getting married later. They’re buying homes later.

We can pin at least part of the blame on economic forces, such as the rising cost of child care.

Gray Kimbrough can’t afford a third child. He already pays more for child care than he does for his mortgage.

His daughter, now five, spent two-and-a-half years – half of her time on this planet – on a waiting list before she got a sought-after spot at a day care in Silver Spring, Maryland. His two-year-old son got in, but only because his sister was already there. But it’s the only option close enough to both his and his wife’s commutes that they can execute the high-speed ballet of pickups, drop-offs and school meetings that defines the days of a working parent.

In a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, 31 per cent of all Americans (and 53 per cent of black Americans) described the cost of child care as a “critical issue”.

Kimbrough, an economist who teaches at American University, pays USD3,455 per month for day care – down from USD3,565 a year earlier, now that his son no longer needs special infant care. Until his children are older, Kimbrough said, he and his wife can pursue only jobs that fit with the geography and schedule dictated by day care.

In a June 2015 Washington Post survey, 62 per cent of mothers and 36 per cent of fathers said they had stopped working or taken a lesser job for child-care reasons.

“We thought we were prepared,” Kimbrough said. “I didn’t quite realise it would be USD3,500 a month.” But, he said, “we’re in a position where we can pay for it”.

That may not be true for the lowest-income Americans. Already, young folks who grew up in low-income homes say they’re less willing to become parents themselves.

When asked about their future, just over a quarter, 27 per cent, of teens from families earning less than USD30,000 a year considered having children to be “extremely” or “very” important, compared with 43 per cent of higher-income teens, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. In contrast, 95 per cent of teens of all income levels place a high level of importance on “having a job or career they enjoy”.

Research indicates that universal child care might encourage people to have children. Spending on early-childhood programs tends to be related to an increase in fertility and a decrease in the gender wage gap, economists Claudia Olivetti (Boston College) and Barbara Petrongolo (Queen Mary University of London) found in a 2017 Journal of Economic Perspectives analysis.

Men and women earn similar amounts until the birth of their first child, at which point the man’s earnings remain steady while the woman’s earnings plummet, according to a working paper from economists Henrik Kleven (Princeton University), Jakob Egholt Sogaard (University of Copenhagen) and Camille Landais (London School of Economics). The paper was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year. – Text & Photo by The Washington Post