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Katherine Magnuson on the American Families Plan and Child Care as Infrastructure

  • Katherine Magnuson
  • May 11 2021
  • PC95-2021

Katherine A. Magnuson
Katherine A. Magnuson

In this episode, we hear from IRP Director Katherine Magnuson about components of the just-released American Families Plan. Magnuson discusses parental leave, funding for child care, universal pre-kindergarten, and expansions of child tax credits. She says efforts to support parents and invest in families can help them to meet their goals and do what they want to do for their children and for themselves.


Chancellor Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. We are releasing this episode in early May of 2021, about a week after the Biden administration announced to the American Families Plan, which broadly aims to invest in education and child care and extend tax credits for families with children. For this episode, I talked to the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, Professor Katherine Magnuson, about the child care, pre-K, parental leave and child tax credit component of the plan and what it would look like for our country and our communities to do more to support lower and middle class parents and their children. So let’s turn to the interview.

Chancellor: Thanks for being here. You are the Director of the Institute for Research in Poverty, my boss, and you’re also Professor at the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. So, broadly, your research focuses on the well-being and development of economically disadvantaged children. Is that roughly right?

Magnuson: Yes, that’s right. So my career has been built on trying to understand what types of programs, policies can help low income families care for the children and low income children grow up and to have healthy, successful lives.

Chancellor: Today, which is May 4th. So just last week, President Biden talked about the American Families Olan. So, we’re talking about that today. And a lot of this plan in the sort of the details that have emerged from it are they’re aimed at expanding access to child care and education with things like universal prekindergarten, paid family leave and efforts to make childcare more affordable. So what’s your initial reaction to what you’ve seen so far?

Magnuson: Well, I think for those of us that have spent time talking with and studying low income families, one of the first things you learn is how challenging it is to care for particularly young children with limited income. If you’re not earning much, it’s hard to pay for child care. On average, that can cost anywhere from eight to ten thousand dollars a year. And that’s just for one kid. And you don’t get a discount if you have two kids. So you’ve got to pay twice as much for two kids. Most working parents really struggle with costs that are that high, so they end up looking for alternative ways to get their kids cared for. So relatives, friends, neighbors, or they end up working less, which they may or may not want to do. It requires mom staying home and not working so that they can care for their kids. And I think all of us who have been looking at families in these circumstances realize that really what parents need are better choices. Right. And this plan offers a lot of better choices for families. It’s going to provide basic level of cash support through the tax system. That’s going to help parents have more money to care for their kids, regardless of whether they’re working or not. It’s going to provide more affordable child care, which is really important if they do want to work. And it’s going to make sure that kids are really ready to start school by providing those universal prekindergarten programs as someone who is always wanting better choices for low income families. This plan seems like it has a lot to like about it.

Chancellor: in the sort of the lead up to this the release of these details. We have been hearing a lot about social infrastructure or even the idea of child care is infrastructure. So this kind of a change from what we often hear about when you’re putting infrastructure like roads and bridges and things like that, why do you think Americans might be sort of increasingly thinking of care and especially care for kids as infrastructure?

Magnuson: Well, I think anyone who has had kids and as a parent knows how much you want your children to be safe and healthy and well cared for. And many parents have had struggled to figure out how to do that. But if we’re going to have economically productive country, we’re going to need to provide care that parents are comfortable using for their children. I mean, it’s just not possible for those of us that have been working from home schooling our children, taking care of our young children at the same time that we’ve been working, we all know what a challenge and frankly, for many of us, a disaster that has been. So if we want people to be able to be economically self-sufficient and work, then we have to be able to say that they can choose a good childcare option and pay for it, and that that requires infrastructure, that requires public investment to make sure that our children will be well cared for. And, of course, many other countries have figured this out and provide that type of infrastructure so that parents have real choices about sending their children to quality care programs.

Chancellor: I want to go back to some of the details of how we make that infrastructure work. But before we do that, you know, I think it’s smart to talk about some of the provisions of what have actually been laid out in the American families plan. And why don’t we just start with paid parental leave or paid family leave? So it sounds like right now they’re looking at 12 weeks of leave, which is something not a lot of Americans have access to right now. So this may be obvious, but how is this going to help people? And who is going to get this? That’s not already seen this.

Magnuson: Yeah. So the one thing that we do know is that right now, the types of people that get paid parental leave are salaried employees at large companies. And it’s basically offered as a perk, as the bonus, as a benefit of working at these companies. So low-income workers, workers and small companies, these are people that have no access to paid leave. Right. And that. Means very often that they have to come back to work, because while they are from that Family Leave Medical Act in the 90s, they’re guaranteed that their job will go, meaning that they can return to their job. They’re not paid for that time off. And that means that they’re saving up vacation days or sick days and often going back to work much sooner than they could or should if we get paid parental leave. It’s just a no brainer that those first three months are really important both for the parents and for the child in terms of their health and development. So we’re kind of late to this policy innovation, but it’s really time to support parents shortly after the birth of their child and not force them back into employment so soon.

Chancellor: You know, I guess looking slightly later in the lifespan of the child. What about child care provisions? What can you tell me about what’s been laid out in this plan in terms of like what we might see and what families will be affected by that?

Magnuson: One of the things we know is that our federal government currently provides support to low-income families through a child care subsidy system. But that subsidy system varies quite a bit from state to state, both in terms of its generosity and how many people it can serve. So this is going to be a major investment that’s really going to be supporting low income and working middle class families who now can pay as much as 20 percent of their income on child care alone. Right. The goal, as I understand it, of this plan is to keep families who are lower class, middle class is going to allow them to pay only up to seven percent of their household income for child care. Now, how that actually will get implemented, how that will be rolled out, I have no idea. But spending seven percent of your income on child care. It’s a heck of a lot better than spending twenty or twenty five percent of your income on child care. It’s going to be a huge help to working parents and their ability to afford other things that they need for their children and families.

Chancellor: How about universal prekindergarten? So, I mean, this is something that some school districts are already offering sort of in some format, you know, what’s this going to look like? An expanded version?

Magnuson: Yeah. So actually, many states have pre-K programs. They’re not all universal. And then within the states, districts make their own choices and some have universal programs as well. You know, it will look different depending on where you are, what your district wants to do. So some will bring kids into classrooms in actual school buildings and others will work with community partners. So often child care programs that have preschool rooms for three year olds or four year olds, but they will sort of work within the guidelines in the framework set up by school districts. So for some kids, it may look different. They might for the first time be in a real school building, but for others it will look very much the same as high quality preschool, with an emphasis, potentially a greater emphasis on early academic skills, but definitely not in a way that’s developmentally inappropriate. There’s no drill and kill effort here. It really is just getting kids socialize to school and emphasizing kids learning and environments in which kids have fun learning through playing games, reading books, all sorts of fun activities.

Chancellor: And as it relates to kids, you know, another major thing that the president talked about this past Wednesday was, you know, kind of the expansion of the child tax credit that we’ve heard about previously. Tim’s meetings talked about previously on the podcast here. You know what? What can you tell us about that and kind of how that fits into the sort of broader scheme of things?

Magnuson: I think it’s really important that we find mechanisms to support parents in their efforts to care for their children. For a long time. Wages at the low end of the income distribution have been stagnant. They haven’t been rising. And frankly, many families are making it into the middle class because they have two working parents. Right. And so families are facing choices between, again, having to purchase sometimes very expensive child care or stay home with their children. This tax credit just provides some initial base level of support. It’s thirty six hundred dollars for children who are under age five, less for older children. But I really think it’s going to give parents some support and flexibility to figure out the best way to figure out that work life balance for themselves and for their children. It really will go a long way to reducing particularly poverty. For those at the very low end of the distribution, it’s going to be an important resource that they can use to spend on their children and families.

Chancellor: You know, all this is kind of contingent on this actually being. Approved, this is a plan right now, right? You know, this has got to go through Congress, let’s say that this does happen. What do you see as some of the challenges that are sort of built into, like, ramping all of this up?

Magnuson: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot to get figured out, a lot of details and a lot we don’t know about how all of this will roll out. That said, I think one of the most important things is to make sure that it’s done in an equitable way, that the people who can really benefit and need the support are able to get it, that it doesn’t create undue burdens. Colleagues talk a lot about administrative burden and social programs. And we really want to make sure that the families who can benefit from these supports are able to access them with respect to child care. I live in Wisconsin, Dave, you live in Wisconsin, too. And I know that states have challenges, right? So often you can find child care in large urban areas, but once you get outside of the cities and into rural areas, it can be really challenging to provide or to find child care providers. So there’s going to be some challenges around making sure not just that people aren’t having to pay a lot, but that they can actually also find affordable care in their local communities. So I think equity across economic conditions, racial and ethnic groups and in geography is going to be really critical, at least for the child care and prekindergarten sides of the proposal.

Chancellor: It does seem like one of the components that we’d want to look at in thinking about equity, right. Is, is that actually the quality of care that the children are receiving? I know a lot of your research has looked at measuring quality of care of child care. Why does quality child care matter? How much does it matter? And how do you know? How do we make sure that the child care that’s being rolled out in a plan like this is of high quality?

Magnuson: Yeah, that’s a great question. And indeed, if you ask five different parents what they think makes for quality child care and the one hand you’ll get the same answer, say, for caregivers. On the other hand, parents care about a lot of other types of things, that they have different visions. I think the first thing to recognize is that we need to be able to provide parents with choice. There’s not a one size fits all type of high quality child care program. And secondly, I think the thing that children need most is that warm, supportive, attentive caregiver who is going to do all the things that a parent with their child is going to read the books, talk about the stories, ask questions, provide fun activities, get them outside and provide healthy food. We have a variety of metrics. Almost all of them involve spending some time in that classroom and watching the types of interactions that are typical, understanding what the classroom environment itself is like. And then some do really deep dives into understanding how many words are spoken and all of that sort of stuff. At the core of quality child care is a qualified, well trained and probably well compensated child care provider, a teacher who is consistent. Right. And one of the problems that we faced in child care, largely because it’s supported by parents, is that wages are very low for child care workers, for teachers. So here in Wisconsin, they earn on average between 11 and 13 dollars an hour. That’s about as much as you can make walking a dog. It’s less than you make at Target or Wal-Mart or Wholefoods. Right. They’re often not well compensated. And that leads to turnover in the field. You can get a teacher, you can hire a teacher into a classroom, you train them up to be really good, and then they can go somewhere else and earn more money doing something else. I think at the core of all this, one of the things that everyone I know who cares about the field of child care is hoping will come out of it, will be better paid staff that are able to stay in the jobs and be trained or get more training so that the kids have high quality child care providers. It’s just it’s really hard when you have 40 percent turnover in these programs to be able to consistently provide very high-quality care.

Chancellor: And as we think about evaluation of these sorts of programs, you know, of paid parental leave, helping out with child care, universal pre-K, you know how five, 10 years, 20 years down the line, how do we determine if this is a win, if something like this gets passed? Right. Like what are the sorts of markers that you would look for and maybe as a researcher expect to see movement on how is this going to help United States?

Magnuson: Yeah, I mean, I think we’d expect to see. Families having less economic hardship, right, so less food insecurity, less homelessness, parents will be better able to provide for their children. I think we’ll see better child health. One of the things that paid parental leave does well is make sure that parents are around to get their children immunized, to get support on breastfeeding and a range of health related things right after the birth. I think we’ll see healthier families and I think we’ll see healthier children. I think there’s a good chance that parents will be able to make those choices about whether they want to work or stay home with their children because they’ll have more support, regardless of what option they feel like is their best choice.

Chancellor: What is your takeaway? What are you looking towards? What are the things that you’re paying attention to? You know, as people that are watching this, what should we be looking at?

Magnuson: You know, I think it’s just what is appealing about this proposal is that it’s taking seriously the idea that low income, middle income working parents need more support and investment. And again, we’ve all come through a year of the pandemic where we have been working for home or not working from home, but wishing we could be working at home. And it’s really been a struggle and a challenge for families. And I feel like this is one set of policies that says, you know what, we need to do better by parents for their children. Communities need to figure out how to help parents support the decisions that they want to make and care for their families. What I’m watching is just the hope that there will be a large investment in families that will enable them to really meet their goals and do what they want to do for their children and for themselves. It seems to me long overdue. Been a long time since we’ve had major changes in the types of supports that parents have access to. But I’m really excited to see what, if anything, we’re going to be able to do for parents as well as communities and as a country.

Chancellor: Thanks so much, Professor Katherine Magnuson, for taking the time to talk. You can find her on Twitter at @profkmag. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Our theme music for this episode is staring straight by the board. Thanks for listening.


Child Development & Well-Being, Child Poverty, Children, Early Childhood Care & Education, Economic Support, Education & Training, Employment, Family & Partnering, Labor Market, Low-Wage Work, Parenting, Social Insurance Programs