Skip to main content
ABC News
Kitchen Table Politics: The Cost Of Caring For Kids

The 2016 presidential race has been filled with excitement and drama. But there’s another layer to American politics that gets less attention: How issues of home, family and wallet intersect with electoral politics and public policy.

We’re tackling some of the issues that matter most to Americans’ daily lives, and how everyone from the presidential candidates to local governments are taking on these topics.

Kitchen Table Politics is a five-part podcast series, each episode tied to a different stage in life, from birth through retirement. (The series, hosted by yours truly, lives within the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast feed. If you already subscribe, you’ll get all the episodes.)

This week, we examine some of the costs of having and raising children, including how federal, state and local governments treat paid leave when a child is born or adopted and the cost of childcare for working parents.

Joining me is Andrew Flowers, FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative editor, and guest Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Boushey is also the author of “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.”

In the U.S., who gets to take paid parental leave — and whether that leave is for mothers or also includes fathers — depends on state and local law. We examine some of the trends in new laws being passed and proposed and how they differ from the structure of family leave in other countries.

When it comes to childcare, the question isn’t just cost but also quality and even the stress parents face in finding providers. As the father of a eight-month-old daughter, Andrew brings some personal perspective to the issue, and we’ll examine the big picture — for example, how the cost of in-state college tuition compares to the cost of childcare.

Throughout the five-part podcast series, we’ll be collecting your stories. We’ll play excerpts each episode. Below, listen to a few phone calls we received in full.

  • Gillian: “Family leave has delayed me from starting a family.”
  • John: “We pay more for daycare than we do for our mortgage.”
  • Laura: “Congratulations, you know we can fire you.”
  • Melinda: “It’s a very delicate and stressful situation.”
  • Stephanie: “Sometimes people sit on waitlists for years.”

Next week, we’re discussing the cost of higher education and how it’s affected your wallet. To tell us your story, call 646-820-0538.

Here are some highlights from our child care conversation. These have been lightly edited for clarity.

Who pays for family leave?

Andrew Flowers: What are the arguments against paid family leave? And are they really arguments against the policy or about how to fund it?

Heather Boushey: Well, I think there’s a couple of answers there. Certainly, one thing that you hear is that it’s hard on firms. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an employee who was out on family leave, but it can be really difficult. It can be really difficult for your colleagues. It can be difficult as a manager. It can be hard when your boss is out.

But one thing about that — that’s actually not about paid leave. That’s about life, right? I mean, whether or not you have paid leave does not affect whether or not your mom falls down and breaks her hip. It doesn’t affect, necessarily, whether or not you have a child. Those things happen at work places, and some people like to blame family leave on that.

So one is the absence at work. That’s a “con.” And then, who pays for it? Shouldn’t everybody just save up and pay for it themselves? But, you know, that’s tough because you can’t plan for emergencies. And then: Most people have their first child when they’re young.

The median age of first birth for women is around 26, which means that half of all women have their first child before 26. Young women don’t make a lot of money. Neither do young men. It’s when you make the lowest over your life. So who’s gonna pay for it? Saying to a 24 year old, “Oh, well you shoulda saved up for it,” doesn’t really seem to be a lot of common sense.

Who pays for child care?

Farai Chideya: I don’t have kids, at least not yet. But Andrew, you’ve got a very cute little wee one, so childcare is just not an issue you cover. It is something you are dealing with every day in your own life. And I want to ask you about the issues facing parents when it comes to childcare cost. There’s money, but is money the only issue on the table?

Andrew Flowers: In terms of cost, we know from data that since 1990, the cost for tuition to go to childcare and nursery school is up 180 percent. So clearly childcare costs have been rising, and it’s a major issue hitting family’s pocketbooks.

But the second component besides the pocketbook is the stress factor. I wrote a piece last year about the stress cost of having kids. And it kind of is a question you need to ask yourself. I’ve asked myself a little bit: How much more money would it take to offset the kind of stress burden I have from having my eight-month old daughter? She’s a lot of work, but she’s also wonderful. And for my wife, even more so. It’s a major cost.

Boushey: There are so many challenges for families that have young children. We live in a world where the vast majority of families no longer have that stay-at-home caregiver. And they’re struggling with trying to find the highest quality place to put their kids every day, that they can afford. And they’re doing it in a world where we don’t have a federal system that ensures either quality or affordability for the vast majority of families.

You know, I’m an economist. I read a lot of economic papers, and there is one issue where it seems that there is consensus across the spectrum of economists. And that is in the area of the importance of early childhood education.

What we know [from studies] is that children that had access to better high-quality early education have improved life outcomes. They earn more. They’re more likely to be employed, less likely to be incarcerated.

So this is not a trivial economic issue, just like it’s not a trivial family issue. It’s really important to remember that quality is everything. And the quality is entirely dependent on the quality of the caregiver, which is often dependent on how much we pay them.

Kitchen Table Politics is produced and edited by Galen Druke, Simone Landon, and Jody Avirgan. Tony Chow and Lucina Melesio helped with production. Subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast in iTunes or by searching “fivethirtyeight” in your favorite podcast app.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.