Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.
We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.
When I wrote my book Crawling Behind, the central question was this: why isn’t child care free? Having started my career in public education (I taught 4th grade many moons ago), it was bizarre to me to go from a fully publicly-funded, universal, tuition-free system to one that was pay-to-play based, seemingly, only on the age of the child served. So, it has been fascinating to watch a new trend emerge in recent years: child care is, in fact, becoming free for more families, and free care is becoming a feature of more policy proposals on both sides of the aisle. But… only for some families, and only in some situations. Let’s try to unpack the tortured logic that is leading to some bad and honestly weird outcomes. I’ll be frank that this is a column with more questions than answers!
First, the good news. If you’re a family of four in New Mexico making below about $120,000 a year, your child care can be free. Soon, If you’re a California family of four making under about $85,000 a year, your child care can be free. Soon, if you are a Vermont family of four making under about $53,000 a year, your child care can be free. In the last Congress, both the Build Back Better Act and the Republican Scott-Burr plan (which garnered 14 GOP co-sponsors) included provisions that families making under 75% of their state median income could have child care for… you guessed it, free.
(Note I am intentionally saying “can be free” and not “is free.” We will get to that in a moment.)
This begs a remarkably under-asked question: why? Why should child care be free for some and not for others? If we’re going to draw a line between free and not-free, where does that line get drawn? As the examples above show, lines are being drawn, but in wildly different places. New Mexico uses 400% of the federal poverty line, Vermont uses 175% of the federal poverty line, California uses 75% of state median income. And when did we decide at the federal level that 75% of state median income was the ticket?
The first order question is why anyone should pay at all. Some goods and services—public schools, libraries, fire departments, national defense—have such positive societal benefits that we have determined there should be no user fee. Households and corporations instead pay into those systems through taxes. That is why Bill Gates can send his child to the local public school for free or check out a book at the local library for free, despite obviously being able to pay.
I think sometimes the digression into questions of whether these items fall under the technical economics definition of “public good” or “merit good” misses the point. Sometimes society takes one for the team so that there can be a team. Schools provide, among many other things, a commonly accessible experience and (aspirationally, at least) a common foundation of knowledge and skills. Libraries are enormously important sources of community. It is, on an almost ineffable level, good to know that the fire department will come to my house and the rich guy’s house.
Early care and education is a gray area. Like, ultra-gray. Here’s how gray it is: depending on your child’s age and what type of setting they happen to attend, you may or may not have to pay. Universal pre-K programs—the truly universal ones, like Florida’s and Georgia’s—have no income check. Yet if your child misses the age cutoff by a minute, you’re out of luck. The difference between an August 31st birthday and a September 2nd birthday is the difference between free and many, many thousands of dollars.
I’m going to suggest we need a coherent theory for why people should or should not pay for child care. The shrug-emoji approach makes it difficult to build a compelling case for transformative investments in child care.
Why? Just making child care less expensive for some people, along some seemingly arbitrary lines, falls into the trap of “deliverism.” In an important essay, progressive stalwart Deepak Bhargava and colleagues explain why the theory of deliverism, “the presumption of a linear and direct relationship between economic policy and people’s political allegiances,” is wrong. Contrary to popular belief, helping ease people’s wallets—such as through the pandemic stimulus checks or the expanded child tax credit—is not on its own enough to build political will. Instead, Bhargava argues, “policies that deliver economic benefit without speaking to, reinforcing and constructing a social identity are likely to have little political impact.”
This assertion has big implications for child care. It is difficult to make a values-based case for universal provision if you’re focused on chopping up what benefits go to whom and when. Telling a story—you provide value to society, you deserve support in caring for your family so they can thrive, and those people over there are stopping you from getting it—works better when you have a simple way of explaining the benefit. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be universally free, but as Canada’s “$10 a Day” campaign shows, it does mean having an easily understood benefit for everyone.
That lack of identity-building can also impact the actual effectiveness of these policies. This is where that “can be free” vs. “is free” distinction comes in. One interesting finding from New Mexico’s expansion of eligibility for free care is that, so far, not that many middle class families are taking advantage. The Albuquerque Journal reports that “about 76% of families receiving assistance are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.” (Eligibility rose to 400% of FPL as of July 2021.) There are many different reasons for this—just making child care more affordable does not mean that there is adequate supply, and that supply needs to match preferences—but I have a supposition that many middle-class families do not yet see themselves belonging in a child care subsidy program. No one has told them why they do.
Not having an answer to “should child care be free,” and, if not, where should we draw the line?’ is thus becoming increasingly untenable. This isn’t a place where we want a thousand flowers to bloom any more than we want some states choosing to charge various amounts for fire service or middle school.
We need a clear answer that is grounded in philosophically sound reasoning. That path leads toward good politics and good policy.
 I won’t pretend there isn’t self-interest there – – the fire at my house can spread to the rich guy’s house, and to be sure the fire truck may be slower coming to poorer areas. But you get my point.
 This schism is present even in major Democratic policy proposals like Build Back Better, which would have made pre-K free for three-and four-year-olds, but instituted a sliding scale for younger children and for care of pre-K aged kids outside of traditional hours. No one I’m aware of has made a detailed defense for why that should be the case.
 Based on conversations I’ve had with some of those involved, it’s worth noting that the Department of Health and Human Services’ oft-cited “7 percent of income” line for “affordability” did not come about out of some unimpeachable methodology but was intended more as a general guideline. In fact, HHS used to say that affordability was 10 percent of income; the line itself is malleable.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.