Whitney and Tim Phinney couldn’t have imagined how hard it would be to work and have kids at the same time. But then they had children in America.
Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ivanka Trump took furious notes as she listened to parents, day care providers and employers explain the hurdles they’ve encountered searching for affordable child care during a recent roundtable on the issue, the seventh she’d held this year.
For providers, holding parents’ hands through the thicket of paperwork for subsidies and grants takes up time they should be educating kids. For parents, the high cost of care sometimes means one of them must stay home, taking a wage earner out of the workforce. And for employers, especially those who have people on multiple shifts, the structure of their work simply doesn’t align with traditional child care hours.
For more than an hour, Trump listened, filling notepad pages, but offering few questions or comments.
This mix of quiet public appearances and intense private thoughts reflects how Trump has been tackling two of her marquee issues — paid family leave and affordable child care — since coming to Washington in 2017 as an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump. Eschewing talk shows and tweetstorms, Trump does her work mostly in the background.
And even though she has made some progress — most notably securing an increase in the child tax credit in 2017’s tax law — she admits there’s a long way to go.
“It’s a travesty that we are the only country in the developed world without a policy to support parents and families,” Trump said. “It’s an area that we just needed to do better, and we fought to do better.”
Trump spoke with the USA TODAY Network as part of a deep-dive into the delays in passing federal paid leave and affordable child care. The forces standing in the way, USA TODAY found, include powerful business lobbyists, who oppose federal mandates or a tax. Another barrier: While working families clamor for these policies, large swaths of Americans continue to think the ideal family has a mother staying home with the kids.
Despite those influences, insiders say the political heat to address paid parental leave and affordable child care in Congress is hotter than ever. Both sides of the aisle are now suggesting solutions — a noticeable change from previous efforts, Trump said.
But compromise remains elusive, and proposals for what to do about leave and care and how to pay for them diverge wildly.
“I love the fact that we’re now in a moment where policies are being debated and compared against one another,” Trump said. “That wasn’t true two years ago.”
Moms are working, so U.S. must ‘evolve’
Under the gaze of the family photos that pepper her D.C. office, Trump said the current American child care system is “not sustainable.”
Parents can’t afford quality care; caregivers make below-poverty wages; and child care, as a business, has low margins and high liability, she told USA TODAY.
Our economy has changed drastically in the past few decades, and working moms are now an ensconced part of it: Roughly 47% of the workforce is female, according to Department of Labor statistics. The U.S. can’t afford to keep the status quo, Trump said, and the time has come for policies to “evolve.”
“Whether it’s by choice or by necessity, we need to support this new reality,” she said.
American moms are seriously struggling: Here’s why
Some of the biggest opponents to federal intervention on child care costs, the USA TODAY team found, are Americans who think kids are best off if their moms stay home. These people don’t want to pay for another family’s child care, and they worry by doing so the government would be incentivizing parents to work instead of spending time with their kids.
And those attitudes — held by people who, polls have shown, lean conservative — contribute to inertia in Congress, insiders say.
Nevertheless, Trump has abandoned the long-held conservative talking point that a federal mandate is a nonstarter.
When she got to Washington, she admits she found politicians weren’t ready to change laws. So she set about educating lawmakers and government officials who were entrenched in their opinions despite updated information on the benefits of paid leave and child care.
“I think for a long time, people had grown rather complacent,” she said. “There was no effort to educate colleagues across the aisle on the merit of supporting the policies advanced. So nothing’s going to move.”
Trump says her biggest win so far has been doubling the child tax credit, from $1,000 to $2,000, while making more parentseligible to receive a refund, even if they don’t pay much in taxes. Additionally, the administration lobbied Congress to increase money that states receive for child care block grants by 40%, Trump said.
‘Corporate America has been too slow’
As a working mother, the issues of paid leave and affordable child care are personal to Trump. But as an adviser to the president, these issues are less about heartstrings and more about America’s ability to attract and retain a healthy, inclusive workforce.
“Child care is an undisputed work-related expense for most of America’s working families,” she said at the Kansas City roundtable.
For a long time, the business community has been a roadblock to making paid family leave and, to some extent, affordable child care solutions become a reality, experts told USA TODAY.
Trump said companies have been receptive to her discussions on the issues, but she admitted many still view paid leave simply as “an important benefit to recruit and retain talent” — not as something every American should have.
Even with the uptick in companies offering paid leave, Trump said,“corporate America has been too slow to adopt meaningful reforms.”
For her, the biggest reason to support a nationwide solution are small businesses, which often can’t afford generous paid leave policies.
“If you have six employees and you have two or three who go out on leave … it’s not sustainable,” she said, “which is why I think we need a federal policy.”
American work: Is it at odds with American life?
‘A failure if we don’t pass legislation’
In a lot of ways, Trump is like a symphony conductor for these debates. Right now, she’s trying to get the brass section (Republicans) to talk to percussion (Democrats) and bring in the reeds (business) without throwing off the beat.
The White House doesn’t legislate, she said, but instead acts as an advocate of issues the president wants to advance and a mediator bringing lawmakers together to find a path forward.
While no bills have her name attached, the president’s 2020 budget gives a peek at Trump’s preferred policies.
On paid leave, the budget calls on states to give six weeks off to new parents and pay for it in ways similar to unemployment insurance. But Trump has said this line item is just a placeholder and the White House is looking at all congressional proposals that have the potential to pass.
And on child care, the budget requests a “one-time, mandatory investment of $1 billion” earmarked for “underserved populations.” Implemented similarly to the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, states would apply for a piece of the pie and distribute themoney with an eye toward “encouraging business consortia to establish child care facilities for their employees,” according to a budget fact sheet.
While those are the ideas the administration has put on paper, Trump said she is generally interested in energizing the debate and catalyzing traction.
“I don’t want to disparage any policy ideas,” she said. “I want to encourage people to come to the table, including people who have championed other policies and say, ‘These are fresh ideas. Let’s debate them.’”
As much as she believes her “efforts are bearing fruit,” Trump said she will have viewed her work“as a failure if we don’t pass legislation.”
Getting laws on the books on these two fronts is, after all, why she left New York and the multiple businesses that she says she “loved running.”
“I changed the trajectory of my personal life because I care about supporting the president as he seeks to better the lives of others and give back to a country that’s given so much to us,” she said.
“That’s truly all I care about, which is why I’m willing to put in the elbow grease.”
Follow Courtney Crowder on Twitter: @CourtneyCare
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