February 19, 2019 4:20PM

Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child‐​Care Proposal: The Starting Point For A Government Takeover Of The Sector

Senator Elizabeth Warren is right: Child care services in America can be extremely expensive.

In certain areas, child care can be difficult to find at all. High prices have perniciously regressive effects on low-income families, causing them to miss job opportunities, use unlicensed relatives to care for their children or else forego high amounts of their hard-earned income.

So the presidential candidate’s new promise of universal child care subsidies will no doubt resonate with many families. She would have the federal government cover the costs of child-care from birth to school age entirely for any family earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, provided they use government-approved local providers. Federal funding would also be available above that, with a cap on out-of-pocket spending on child-care at 7% of any family’s income. According to Warren’s explanation, this would come coupled with providers being held to government educational standards and a desire to push up pay for child care workers to levels seen for public school teachers.

This would have dramatic consequences for the child-care sector. A few observations:

  1. Warren’s plan will significantly reduce out-of-pocket costs for many families. It represents a huge new subsidy. Take care for 4 year-olds as one example; at the moment, data from Child Care Aware of America show just two states (Alabama and Mississippi) have average full-time care costs below 7% of median income. For infants, no state has average costs below 7% of median income. For families with 2 or more children in these care settings, the subsidy will be massive. Such a large, universal subsidy will bring significant deadweight (people using the scheme who would otherwise have paid for their own care anyway). But it is so generous that it will encourage many new users of child care too.
  2. This is significant, because state-level government regulations – not least on staff:child ratios and qualification requirements for carers – currently make providing child-care more expensive. This reduces the number of child-care facilities available in low income markets and increases prices for families. Warren’s subsidy response amounts to a classic case of government restricting supply through policy, on the one hand, and then labelling the resulting high prices a “market failure” that needs to be corrected. In fact, Warren’s plan would worsen the supply problem through its promise to raise pay rates for carers substantially. This would restrict supply further while the subsidies induce demand, raising underlying market prices – higher prices now overwhelmingly paid by taxpayers.
  3. In the U.K., child-care subsidies drove providers in some areas out of business. Why? The government-provided subsidy rates to deliver “free” care were often lower than market prices, meaning providers had to cross-subsidize government-guaranteed places by charging more for unsubsidized families. As “free” care expanded, the opportunity to engage in this cross-subsidization fell, and some companies found the government-funding rate uneconomic as it took over more of the sector.
  4. In the U.S., the average cost of child care varies dramatically by state. For a 4 year-old, the cost of full-time center-based care ranges from $5,061 in Alabama, right through to $18,657 in D.C. Warren’s plan would cap the proportion of income any family paid on child-care. But no government would put taxpayers on the hook for a blank check for any family’s spending habits. Otherwise providers would have every incentive to provide extremely luxurious care on the basis that taxpayers would foot the bill. Instead, the federal government would either likely try to fix rates to prevent over-spending (risking big distortions in certain markets through de facto price controls, as seen in Britain), control what services child-care facilities provide very prescriptively or else cap the overall amount any family could spend while still benefiting from the subsidy.

In short, instead of reducing the costs of providing care through much-needed supply-side reform, this new demand-side scheme will further drive up the market price of child-care, with taxpayers on the hook now for increased use of formal care.

Given the cost implications of capping the per income amount spent by any family, the federal government would inevitably have to circumscribe the nature of care, fix the rates taxpayers would finance or cap the total amount families could spend on child-care within the scheme. These would fundamentally change the types of care available or used in the sector.

 

January 11, 2019 12:30PM

The Trumps’ Mistargeted Child Care Proposal

Sadly, there’s a growing bipartisan consensus for more extensive federal involvement in child care policy. Recently, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed extensive new demand-side subsidies. Now today’s Budget from President Trump proposes additional resources for the Child Care and Develop Block Grant program to “increase the supply of child care to underserved populations.” Ivanka Trump is championing this new proposal.

Child care can be extraordinarily expensive. There are big problems with lack of availability in poorer neighborhoods. Ivanka Trump is to be commended for recognizing this is a supply-side problem, rather than just proposing throwing money at it. But that problem is generated in large part by misguided regulations in the form of staff-child ratios and occupational licensing requirements at state level that make it more expensive to provide care. Efforts to formalize the sector as more educational raises costs and so increases prices, with the inevitable regressive consequences. The Trump budget plan only works at the margins to improve affordability and availability, with big potential drawbacks. It is mistargeted.

Under Trump’s proposal, $1 billion extra would be temporarily put into the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. States could apply for funding to be used to encourage employers to invest in child care as they saw fit. But the quid pro quo is that to get the extra money, states would have to show commitments to reducing regulation or requirements that raise the cost of care.

This sounds promising, at first glance. But the White House has clarified this means things such as abolishing zoning requirements that don’t allow new centers in residential districts, rather than insisting states reform child care-specific staffing regulations, which we know drive up prices and worsen availability in poor areas.

Zoning reforms could help deliver more centers, particularly if the temporary extra funds lead to permanently entrenched liberalized land-use policies. But the effect is likely much smaller than the impact of states’ removing regulations on child care providers. A de-regulation brought about through the carrot of one-time funding will also be difficult to enforce and is highly susceptible to moral hazard and being undone over time.

Using federal funds to achieve deregulation also normalizes the idea of federal subsidies for child care with greater prescriptive conditional control. Given the current zeitgeist is for greater formalization of the sector (usually dubbed “improving quality”), it is quite likely such an approach will, over time, lead to more restricted supply and compensatory demand-side subsidies rather than the much-needed deregulatory state-level agenda.

For more on child care, read the relevant section in my paper Government and the Cost of Living.  For more on other recent developments in the debates on this policy area, read: here, here, and here.

June 22, 2018 3:32PM

Could Inefficiency Balance Out Overregulation?

The top left-hand story on the front page of the Metro section of today's Washington Post:

Lawyers for the District argued Wednesday for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenges city regulations requiring some child-care workers to obtain associate degrees or risk losing their jobs....

The requirements ... stipulate that child-care center directors must earn bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers and home-care providers must earn Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates.

Meanwhile, just across the page, in the top right-hand space:

About 1,000 teachers in D.C. Public Schools — a quarter of the educator workforce — lack certification the city requires to lead a classroom, according to District education leaders.

So how about this compromise: the child-care licensing requirement will go into effect, but it will be enforced by the crack management team at DC Public Schools?

April 14, 2017 10:55AM

Paid Leave Means Women Pay

Who pays for women’s mandated paid leave and other women-centric labor policies? At a superficial level, it depends on who you ask. Proposals for federal mandated paid leave and child care laws run the gamut, and advocates identify government, taxpayers, or private companies as backers. Unfortunately, those answers reveal a glaring oversight: directly or indirectly, women will pay.

Economists of a variety of ideological persuasions agree, including Larry Summers, former Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama. In 1989, Summers wrote “Some Simple Economics of Mandated Benefits” where he asserted that “The expected cost of mandated benefits is greater for women than it is for men.”

What does that mean? In his paper, Summers concludes that women will be paid less or not hired as a result of mandated benefits. In his words, “If wages could freely adjust, these differences in expected benefit costs would be offset by differences in wages.” And if not? “[T]here will be efficiency consequences as employers seek to hire workers with lower benefit costs.”

In the real world, Summers’ predictions seem to be borne out. Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist historically unopposed to economic intervention, authored research that “consistently suggest[ed]” women’s wages are reduced to reflect the cost of benefit mandates in states that try them. Gruber estimated that the shift in cost is around “the order of 100 percent.”

And more recent research indicates women “pay” for mandated paid leave and job protections in other ways.[1] According to Jenna Stearns, wage and job entitlements led fewer women to hold management positions and promotion-track jobs in Great Britain. Her research provides “evidence that access to job-protected paid maternity leave can actually exacerbate gender inequality among highly educated workers” [emphasis added].

Although proponents rarely mention it, the U.S. policy status quo holds some counterintuitive advantages. A 2015 study comparing the U.S. against other countries suggests that women in the U.S. are more likely to have full time jobs and work as managers or professionals. That difference is attributed to a lack of maternal wage and job entitlement policies.

Importantly, if the U.S. did move toward paid leave or job entitlements for women, the loss of wages and/or opportunities during childbearing-aged years would not be one-time penalties. Being passed over for a job, involuntarily mommy-tracked, or having wages slashed to pay for prospective benefits can have impacts that last a professional lifetime.

These points aren’t mentioned in the current debate, but they should be. As Summers concludes, “There is no sense in which benefits become ‘free’ just because the government mandates employers offer them to workers.” Intellectual honesty requires we don’t ignore this inconvenient, but important fact: paid leave means women pay.

 


div[1] Additional evidence here

September 15, 2016 12:44PM

Liberalized Immigration Will Help Mothers More than Trump’s Child Care Plan

Donald Trump recently unveiled a new child care plan whereby the government will force employers to give time off to new mothers in exchange for some shuffling of the tax code.  Mothers do tend to benefit from such schemes but they also end up paying for their time off in other, indirect ways like lower wages.  Forcing employers to pay their female employees to take time off decreases the labor demand for child-bearing age women and increases their supply, thus lowering their wages.  Economist Larry Summers, former Director of the National Economic Council during President Obama’s first administration, wrote a fantastic paper explaining this effect.

Many firms have maternity leave policies that balance an implicit decrease in wages or compensation for working-age mothers with time off to care for a newborn.  The important point about these firm-specific policies is that they are flexible.  Some women want a lot of time off and aren’t as sensitive to the impact of their careers while others want to return to work immediately.  A one-size fits all government policy will remove this flexibility.    

Regardless of the merits or demerits of Trump’s plan, economists Patricia Cortes and Jose Tessada discovered an easier and cheaper way to help women transition from being workers to being mothers who work: allow more low-skilled immigration.  In a 2008 paper, they found:

Exploiting cross-city variation in immigrant concentration, we find that low-skilled immigration increases average hours of market work and the probability of working long hours of women at the top quartile of the wage distribution.  Consistently, we find that women in this group decrease the time they spend in household work and increase expenditures on housekeeping services.

The effect wasn’t huge but skilled women did spend less time on housework and more time working at their job.    

Younger women with higher educations and young children would be the biggest beneficiaries from an expansion of childcare services provided by low-skilled immigrants.  There are about 5.4 million working-age women with a college degree or higher that also have at least one child who is under the age of 8 (Table 1).  Almost 78 percent of them are employed, 2 percent are unemployed looking for work, and 21 percent are not in the labor force.    

Table 1

Age of Youngest Child by Mother’s Employment Status, College and Above Educated, Native-Born Mothers, Ages 18-64

 

Less than 1 Year Old


1


2


3


4


5


6


7


Total

Working

706,534


700,014


537,301


463,119


405,006


476,014


420,776


476,092


4,184,856

Unemployed

8,201


12,810


22,617


14,560


9,126


10,664


11,548


15,450


104,977

Not in Labor Force

207,338


221,078


170,360


142,461


124,305


103,283


79,827


79,621


1,128,271

Total

922,072


933,902


730,278


620,140


538,437


589,960


512,151


571,163


 5,418,104

     Source: March CPS, 2014. 

As the youngest child ages, the percentage of women not in the labor force also shrinks, probably because less labor at home is required to take care of them (Figure 1).  Cheaper childcare provided by low-skilled immigrants can increase the rate at which these skilled female American workers return to the job after having a child. 

Age of Youngest Child by Percent of Mothers Not in Labor Force, College and Above Educated, Native-Born Mothers, Ages 18-64

 

Media Name: childcarenowrasteh.jpg

     Source: March CPS, 2014. 

Trump’s immigration policy doesn’t allow him to propose helping mothers in this cheaper way.  Allowing more lower-skilled immigrants to help with childcare does conflict with Trump’s position on cutting LEGAL immigration.  Liberalizing low-skilled immigration will give more options to working mothers, boost opportunity for immigrants, increase the take-home pay of working mothers (complementarities), allow more Americans with higher skills to enter the workforce, and slightly liberalize international labor markets.  It’s a win-win for everybody except for the current government protected, highly regulated, heavily licensed, and very expensive day care industry. 

It’s hard being a new mother.  My wife’s ability to deliver, feed, and care for our three-month-old son with only a short break from her job is impressive.  Instead of lowering my wife’s wages indirectly with an ill-conceived family leave policy, it would be better to expand her ability to hire immigrants to help out at home.  More choices, not mandated leave, will lead to better outcomes.  If only Trump’s immigration platform didn’t make this solution impossible.    

September 29, 2010 5:42PM

Head Start Fraud

It’s been a tough week for the Department of Health and Human Services. As I discussed earlier, the Government Accountability Office reported on fraud problems with the Child Care and Development Fund program. Another new report from the GAO finds fraud problems with HHS’s Head Start program.

GAO investigators attempted to register children from fictitious families in Head Start programs in six states and the District of Columbia. The GAO created 13 fictitious families that earned too much income or possessed other characteristics that would disqualify the children from participating in Head Start. The result is embarrassing:

In 8 out of 13 eligibility tests, our families were told they were eligible for the program and instructed to attend class. In all 8 of these cases, Head Start employees actively encouraged our fictitious families to misrepresent their eligibility for the program. In at least 4 cases, documents we later retrieved from these centers show that our applications were doctored to exclude income information for which we provided documentation, which would have shown the family to be over-income. Employees at seven centers knowingly disregarded part of our families’ income to help make over-income families and their children appear to actually be under-income. This would have had the effect of filling slots reserved for under-income children with over-income children. At two centers, staff indicated on application forms that one parent was unemployed, even though we provided documentation of the parents’ income. A Head Start employee at one center even assured us that no one would verify that the income information submitted was accurate.

The GAO finding is not surprising given that previous reports show that HHS does a poor job administering the program.

In 2000, the GAO found that 76 percent of Head Start grantees reviewed were not in compliance with financial management standards. In a subsequent review, more than half remained out of compliance. In 2005, the GAO reported that HHS still couldn't adequately identify financial management weaknesses of Head Start grantees. In 2008, the GAO reported that HHS still had not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of Head Start's risks, and said that it had made “little progress” in ensuring that the data it collects from grantees are reliable.

But as a Cato essay on Head Start explains, the program’s biggest problem is that it isn’t effective in helping children from low-income families succeed later in life:

In 2010, HHS released a long-anticipated study of Head Start's effectiveness, which is the most rigorous analysis to date. The program is supposed to give disadvantaged children a "head start" in life. However, the study found almost no advantages to children in kindergarten and grade one from having gone through Head Start, compared to children who had not.

Of the 112 measurements in the new HHS study—which covered areas such as academics, socio-emotional development, and health—only a handful showed any statistically significant benefit to participants of Head Start. In addition, most measured benefits disappeared once more rigorous statistical methods were applied. In other words, there was virtually no benefit to children of having attended Head Start.

After 45 years and $166 billion in spending, it’s apparent that this Great Society relic isn’t the best way to help disadvantaged children.

Opponents of federal welfare programs are often accused of being unconcerned about the needs of the poor. However, the burden of proof should be on the advocates who claim that federal bureaucracies and concomitant subsidies are the best option for assisting the less fortunate. Head Start, and other smoldering embers from the Great Society’s “War on Poverty,” continues to show otherwise.