Of all the campaign issues that are being discussed, affordable child care is one that is close to my heart. So I read with interest Hillary Clinton’s online fact sheet as well as Donald Trump’s “Childcare Reforms That Will Make America Great Again.” I hope that the candidates are able to elaborate on their position statements in tonight’s debate. But debates are not always the best place to highlight the nuances of a particular policy agenda, and it might not even come up at all, given the myriad issues facing our country and our world.

What I want to argue here is that affordable child care is not just another political issue for people to argue about today. It is a moral issue. It goes to the heart of what a good and stable society should offer families. And if we can’t find some common ground on this issue, rooted in our concern that all children have what they need to thrive, we’re in serious trouble.

What does the Church have to say?

Not surprisingly, Catholic teachings have a lot to say about family life and the well-being of children. Families are seen as the foundation of a stable social order. Fr. Thomas Massaro has written that “Catholic social teaching suggests that any compassionate society will count the health of family life as among the highest priorities on its policy agenda. Because families form the very fabric of a healthy society, all our efforts to strengthen families and invest in their stability and well-being are absolutely vital (Living Justice, 93). Families are described as “domestic church” (LG, 11), even as Gaudium et Spes notes that “serious disturbances are caused in families by modern economic conditions, by influences at once social and psychological, and by the demands of civil society (GS, 47). Catholic social teachings have, for some time, recognized the tension that comes when parents work outside the home. For example, John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens of the that work and family life “must be properly united and must properly permeate each other” (10). He goes on (my document is not in inclusive language, unfortunately):

“In a way, work is a condition for making it possible to found a family, since the family requires the means of subsistence which man normally gains through work. Work and industriousness also influence the whole process of education in the family, for the very reason that everyone ‘becomes a human being’ through, among other things, work, and becoming a human being is precisely the main purpose of the whole process of education. Obviously, two aspects of work in a sense come into play here: the one making family life and its upkeep possible, and the other making possible the achievement of the purposes of the family, especially education. Nevertheless, these two aspects of work are linked to one another and are mutually complementary in various points” (LE, 10).

If it is true that work and family life are “linked to one another” and “mutually complementary,” then why do working parents so often feel this as a tug-of-war in their daily lives? Why haven’t we recognized as a society the value of strong social safety nets for the children of parents in low-wage work?

What does the data say?

It is important to look at the data. Of the 24 million children under 6 in the US today, 12 million need day care because both parents work or a single parent is the breadwinner. In 2013, the average cost of full-time care for an infant at a child care center was about $10,000 per year. [Speaking from experience: in southern California, when my two children were enrolled in full time care at our neighborhood day care, I paid $2,100/month- not including evening babysitters for those times I had to stay on campus for evening lectures. That is more than $25,000/year.] When I started researching the data, I realized that families with two children under four years old often pay between 19-27% of their income for child care. The authors of that study conclude:

As policymakers look for ways to improve living standards for the vast majority of Americans who have endured decades of stagnant wages, increasing child care affordability is an excellent place to start. Child care costs constitute a large portion of the income families need in order to achieve a modest yet adequate standard of living—and are particularly onerous for workers paid the minimum wage. Measuring child care costs against a variety of benchmarks—including the cost of college tuition, the HHS’s 10 percent affordability threshold, and median family incomes—demonstrates that high quality child care is out of reach for working families.

Every week in the United States, nearly 11 million children younger than age 5 are in some type of child care arrangement. On average, these children spend 36 hours a week in child care, with costs ranging upwards of $500 a month for an infant. As child care consumes a larger proportion of family budgets, funding high-quality child care services should be a paramount concern for governments, business leaders, and families alike.

So how are the candidates talking about this issue?

Trump’s campaign says that government policies are “stuck in the past” but the Trump plan will

1. Help every family with the costs of childcare and eldercare.
2. Empower families to choose the care that is right for their family.
3. Create a new, dynamic market for family-based and community-based solutions.
4. Incentivize employers to provide childcare at the workplace.
5. Provide 6 weeks of paid leave to new mothers before returning to work.

Trump’s plan would “reduce regulations to allow the market to work,” especially by changing “child-to-staff ratios” in child care centers in order to reduce prices for parents. It sounds to me like this means there would be more children under the care of fewer workers who would then have fewer regulations and government oversight (as if regulations of centers in charge of keeping children safe are a bad thing). His plan would provide a tax deduction equal to the average cost of child care in a state, an approach that, according to analysis by the New York Times, would give high-income parents a tax savings of 40% while low and middle-income parents a break of less than 8%. He has no provision to pay for this plan, so the NYT editorial board estimates that it would be added to deficit spending. But even Trump’s campaign thinks affordable child care makes good business sense:

“Because breakdowns in employee childcare networks of care cost U.S. businesses $4.4 billion annually as a consequence of avoidable employee absenteeism, both businesses and families will benefit from the increased availability of convenient, reliable, care.”

So while I am suspicious of Trump’s market-based solutions and I need more details on how he would pay for his overall plan, it is worth noting that even Trump is in favor of affordable child care.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign website describes her support for affordable child care and increased funding for early childhood education, including a more detailed action plan and research that supports her policy initiatives. In a summer 2015 speech on the issue, Clinton said “I believe getting of to a good start should be our children’s birthright, part of the basic bargain that we have with each other as a nation. Every child should have the tools and the skills to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, especially those kids from our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.” Her goals include:

  1. Make preschool universal for every 4-year old in America.

  2. Significantly increase child care investments so that no family in America has to pay more than 10% of its income to afford high-quality child care.

  3. Improve the quality of child care and early learning by giving a raise to America’s child care workforce.

  4. Double our investment in Early Head Start and the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program.

  5. Expand access to evidence-based home visiting programs.

  6. Award scholarships of up to $1,500 per year to help as many a 1 million student parents afford high-quality child care.

The NYT editorial board declares Clinton’s plan “more realistic” than Trump’s. And it is worth noting that Head Start & SNAP funding are regularly on the chopping block in Republican budget proposals, while they are seen by the Democratic platform as essential to the well-being of an economy in the service of working families.

Back to the Big Picture

While this is just one political issue among many that voters will be thinking about before November 8th, it is also an issue that needs to be discussed with regard to how church communities can serve the needs of working families. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was shocked at how few Catholic parishes in my community had child care centers. My pastor told me it was “out of the question” and “totally impossible” because of the “high cost.” My own university– a Catholic university employing many women of child-bearing age (not to mention students of child-bearing age), also does not see this as a high priority. I even had one friend in another city who had to put her name down on a day care waiting list before she even began telling family members that she was pregnant. My point is– there is an opportunity here for our church institutions to serve a real social need that is often unmet in many communities, especially low-income communities.

And finally, we also must recognize that we aren’t just talking about economics detached from human lives. Even Trump tries to make the case that affordable child care makes good business sense. But we need to remember that the heart of the argument should not be about whether anything makes good business sense. The heart of the argument should be: Is it the right thing to do? Recall that John Paul II expresses it this way:

“The economy in fact is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity. If economic life is absolutized, if the production and consumption of goods become the center of social life and society’s only value, not subject to any other value, the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire sociocultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone.

All of this can be summed up by repeating once more that ecnomic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him” (CA, 39).

In other words, human life is about more than “business sense.” Tonight I will be tuning in to see how the candidates weigh in on these and other issues facing families today.