President Obama released his fiscal 2016 budget on Monday. The New York Times joyfully asserted that the budget gives a ‘force’, ‘coherence’, and ‘ambitiousness’ to the themes Obama outlined in his State of the Union address last month. Before we get too carried away, however, with how forceful and ambitious his budget proposals are, we should remind ourselves that for the rest of his presidency, Obama has to work with a Republican controlled Congress. These budget proposals are just that – proposals.
Of course, in his State of the Union speech, and in his speeches since, Obama has tried to turn the disadvantage of a Republican controlled Congress to his advantage. The Republicans will be the ones at fault, he argues, if they do not follow his lead and engage with these proposals. They are the ones we should blame (always), since they are the party of ‘no’.
While Obama’s unabashed ill-will for his political opponents never ceases to amaze me (he is the President after all – he could at least try to tone down the partisan rhetoric since he is elected to represent all of us), I do think that Republicans would do well to heed his warning. They do need to engage with, rather than ignore, the proposals that he puts forward – especially his proposals on childcare.
Obama declared childcare to be a ‘national priority’ in his State of the Union address. He wants to pour billions of federal money into subsidising daycare, so that middle class and lower class families can have accessible and affordable high quality childcare. At the moment, annual daycare costs for a typical two-earner family are equivalent to a year’s tuition at some universities. Obama proposed to increase the number of places available, as well as give families a $3,000 tax break per child to help with childcare costs. He does not want anyone to be ‘daycare poor’.
Now, I always get pummeled by friends and strangers alike whenever I write on these matters, so let me be clear: I agree that high quality, affordable childcare is a necessary, and good, thing to have in society. I’ve been a mother for nearly 17 years, and I’ve seen the enormous variety of circumstances which families encounter. Many need childcare, and they should be able to get it without being mortgaged to the eyeballs or worrying unduly about their children while under someone else’s care.
Having said that, I cannot understand why ‘daycare’ is the only kind of ‘childcare’ that seems to matter to politicians. Obama argues that since having both parents working is an economic necessity for most families in 2015, it is only right that we subsidise thecost of childcare for them. But all childcare comes at a hefty cost, not just daycare. I was a stay at home mother for the better part of 16 years, and the cost of my childcare, which I provided myself, was the salary which I gave up in order to look after my children. In that sense, homecare is very often the more expensive option.
It is only right, then, that when we speak of the cost of childcare, we acknowledge the cost of both daycare and homecare. And it is on this point that Republicans can, and should, engage with Obama on his childcare proposals. If we give tax breaks for childcare outside the home, we should give equal tax breaks for childcare inside the home. Why give financial rewards to families who use daycare over those who use homecare, especially when the incomes of these families are roughly the same? Single earner families have just as many financial pressures, maybe even more, than double earner families. Republicans should press Obama on this point.
And if they do press him on this point, it will enable us to see where Obama’s true sympathies lie. Does he really want to help all lower and middle class families? Or, has he taken a leaf out of David Cameron’s book, and wants to help only double earner families? Is this about helping families to thrive, or is it about getting as many parents as possible into the workforce – no matter what their individual circumstances or needs of their families – in order to increase GDP?
I remember well Cameron’s rhetoric when he first started taking away child benefit from single earner families, and introducing tax breaks and subsidies to double earner families who earned far more than said single earner families. At that point, we had lived in Britain for many years and had always appreciated the child benefit system. And then Cameron said, I believe, that the government was only interested in helping families who were ‘aspirational’ and who wanted ‘to get on.’
As a stay at home mother at the time, with six children ranging in ages from 15 to 4, and a husband who worked away during the week, I was beside myself with rage. Why did I not count as someone who wanted ‘to get on’? The whole reason I had chosen to be a stay at home mother was so that my children could have the best start in life; indeed, so that they could ‘get on’. But because the government needed to kick start an economic recovery, we stay at home parents were impaled with an incredibly condescending – and false – political rhetoric regarding our uselessness to society. Nobody could invest in us, because there would be no return on the investment, you see.
It is these experiences in Britain that have made me skeptical of Obama’s childcare proposals. For he, too, employs the rhetoric of only helping ‘working families’. He will invest in daycare – not homecare – because daycare means both parents work outside the home, which stimulates the economy. As one commentator put it: ‘America is becoming a return-on-investment country in which every endeavor must justify itself in terms of accountancy rather than philosophy.’
When I told my children that we were going to lose our child benefit, I made no secret of the injustice of it all. ‘Mr. Cameron thinks that taking care of you all isn’t a real job, and that I don’t work very hard. He says he only wants to help families where both the daddy and the mommy work at jobs other than looking after their children.’
The initial reaction of the children was stunned silence (since they all know how hard I work) and then my six year old spoke up: ‘Why do they only want to help some mommies?’ she said. ‘Don’t all mommies need help?’
Mr. President, if my six year old can understand the issue at stake, I can onlyhope that you will, too.