Imagine a family policy that increased toddlers’ “anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity,” later made school-age children more likely to act up and less satisfied with life, and was ultimately linked to a “sharp … increase in criminal behavior.”

Would you be all in for such a policy? Probably not.

This was not the intent of policymakers in Quebec when they pushed through a universal child care program in 1997. In fact, their intent was to ensure a “healthy start” for all children by making low-cost child care available to all parents, while simultaneously boosting the financial fortunes of families by putting both parents back in the workforce as quickly as possible. 

But their best intentions were not realized for the kids in Quebec, as Jenet Erickson, a fellow at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution, recently pointed out in “Family Studies.” Instead, the introduction of universal child care in Canada led to lots of unintended consequences for the tens of thousands of infants and toddlers who ended up spending less time with their parents, ironically at the hands of an ostensibly pro-family policy. 

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Vox, by no means a conservative organ, summarized the policy’s ill effects this way: “Quebec gave all parents cheap day care — and their kids were worse off as a result.” To be clear, not every child care policy is designed equally. And Quebec’s program was explicit about raising the rate of mothers participating in the labor force. There are other programs that aim to give parents more options. That’s why some view cash payments, which allow for maximum flexibility (parents can simply spend the money on day care if they choose) as a better way forward than government incentives nudging parents into work rather than being with their kids. 

Findings on the Quebec program have led even proponents of child care to caution about its use for infants. But, despite the science on child development, which tells us that infants thrive on mom and dad time, there is a big push looming in Washington to get more young children in child care outside of the home. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has proposed a $70 billion plan for universal child care that would fund a network of child care centers across the nation. President Joe Biden’s original “American Rescue Plan,” which aimed to help the country recover from COVID-19, called for more than $50 billion on child care-related initiatives and tax credits. 

All this is pitched as help for struggling families — and there is no question policymakers should help the child care providers who were forced to shut down because of COVID-19 to get back on their feet. But, the push to get even more kids in child care than was the case before COVID-19 is largely an elite phenomenon, driven more by academics, journalists and professionals who subscribe to what has been called “workism.” This is the idea that work outside of the home is the summit of a fulfilling life and, when it comes to family, both parents should maximize their commitment to full-time work and minimize the time they take off work to care for children. 

In fairness, some do make an exception for a newborn’s first one to three months at home, for which they think paid parental leave is necessary. But, workism may help explain why leaders like Melinda Gates are now calling for multibillion-dollar increases in child care spending across the globe in the wake of COVID-19: “As governments rebuild their economies, it’s time to start treating child care as essential infrastructure — just as worthy of funding as roads and fiber optic cables,” she said. 

Child care is “essential” for Gates because it allows both fathers and especially mothers to throw themselves into the pursuit of opportunities “to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives” in the workplace. The assumption here, of course, is that the workplace is where the real action is at. What seems strangely less important for Gates is giving parents greater options to opt out of the rat race to spend more time with their kids.

But, again, workism is largely the provenance of well-educated men and women like Gates, according to a new YouGov poll. A majority of those with at least a four-year college degree report that their top two-family policy priorities are work oriented, either paid family leave or free/discounted child care. In other words, they prefer more “workist” family policies that tie parents closer to their jobs. They are also the group most likely to prefer that both parents work full time.

But for Americans without a college degree, their top two-family policy choices are different: direct cash assistance or a wage subsidy that boosts their family’s income. For these Americans, they prefer what I call “familist” policies that loosen their dependence on work outside the home and free them up for family time. In fact, less educated Americans are the least likely to support a model where both parents work full time. 

The bottom line: Poor and working-class families are more likely to prioritize the parental freedom of cash more than child care, whereas the educated and affluent are more likely to value child care, according to the Home Building Survey by American Compass.

A spectrum of bills in Congress from senators on both sides of the aisle now seek to prioritize cash over child care. On the Republican side, Utah’s Mitt Romney has proposed a Family Security Act that would provide families with $350 per month ($4,200 per year) for children ages 0-5 and $250 per month ($3,000 per year) for children ages 6 to 17. And Utah’s Mike Lee and Florida’s Marco Rubio would like to expand the child tax credit to $3,500 per child ($4,500 per child under age 6) — though they have not yet gotten behind a push to make these payments monthly, which would make it easier for families who are just getting by. On the Democratic side, Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown would send $300 per month ($3,600 per year) for children ages 0 to 5 and $250 per month ($3,000 per year) for children ages 6 to 16. 

These bills send two important messages to American families. First, the work that parents do in the home is sufficiently important that public policy should make it easier for parents to afford to spend more time with their young children. Second, families should have the freedom to choose for themselves how best to care for their kids, rather than having Uncle Sam choose one model that prioritizes paid work over parenthood. These are authentic familist policies.

By contrast, the message sent by the push for universal child care is that, ultimately, work matters more than family — and that government knows best how to arrange work and family choices. The irony is that some of the primary proponents for this view — for example, Gates and Warren — often deploy family-centered approaches in their own life. After the birth of her first child, Gates took time off from work to be at home with her children. Warren deliberately steered clear of child care outside the home after a bad experience with it.

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In the essay introducing her universal child care proposal, Warren recalls: “One day I picked up my son Alex from day care and found that he had been left in a dirty diaper for who knows how long. I was upset with the day care but, more than anything, angry with myself for failing my baby. At the end of my rope, I called my 78-year-old Aunt Bee. … Two days later, she arrived at the airport with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy — and stayed for 16 years.”

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“Sen. Warren never expresses any regret for enlisting her Aunt Bee,” observed Samuel Hammond, of the Niskanen Center. “Something tells me that she, like millions of Americans, preferred the care of a loving family member over that of a stranger, credentialed or not. I suspect Aunt Bee enjoyed her time as well, finding new meaning and purpose long into retirement.”

New legislative proposals from the likes of Utah’s Lee and Romney and Colorado’s Bennet would give families the financial freedom to rely more on a mother, father or other family member — including the likes of an Aunt Bee. These are among the reasons that the flurry of new family-policy initiatives being proposed in the halls of Congress should prioritize cash more than child care. All Americans should have the option to make the choice that Melinda Gates and Elizabeth Warren made when caring for their own young children — to have a family member care for them.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

This story will appear in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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