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Trump and Biden dodge child care solutions, sparking post-debate frustration

It was a moment thousands of parents had petitioned for: a chance to hear how the two main presidential contenders plan to tackle the high cost of child care in America.

Citing a report that found that the price of child care in 2023 averaged more than $11,000 a year per child, debate co-moderator Jake Tapper of CNN asked how the candidates would help American families struggling to pay.

But viewers of Thursday night’s debate barely got a response to the question.

Former President Donald Trump ignored it entirely, instead using his time to defend his decision to fire members of his administration before repeatedly insulting President Joe Biden.

Biden, meanwhile, dedicated less than half a minute to his answer, broadly stating: “We should significantly increase the child care tax credit. We should significantly increase the availability of women and men, of single parents, to be able to go back to work, and we should encourage businesses to have child care.”

Not long after, the two candidates sparred over their golf games, spending far more time discussing their golf handicaps than they had on the price of child care.

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Moms First, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gender equality for mothers, said Friday that she was proud that the question was included in the debate and called it “a demonstration of the power of the movement of moms.” Her group had delivered a petition to CNN with nearly 15,000 signatures that demanded that the debate moderators bring attention to America’s “broken child care system.”

Yet while she felt it was a victory that child care had made it into the debate, the candidates’ answers were “deeply frustrating,” Saujani said.

“Families are drowning in debt, going bankrupt, having to choose between their children and going to work. This is a real crisis,” she said in a phone interview. “Instead of offering substantive answers and solutions, they basically fought with one another.”

Reshma Saujani speaks in Los Angeles in 2023.
Reshma Saujani in 2023. Phillip Faraone / Getty Images for Caring Across Generations

She said she hoped child care affordability would be brought up again at the next debate.

“Answer the damn question,” she said. “This is one of the issues where the vast majority of Americans agree. It’s not a partisan issue.”

And it’s urgent for millions of families. The advocacy group Child Care Aware of America found that in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, the price of center-based day care for two children exceeded average annual rent payments by 25% to more than 100%. Its research revealed that the national average price of child care for 2023 was an eye-popping $11,582, and that it would take 10% of married parents’ median income to afford it, or 32% of a single parent’s median household income. 

That far surpasses the recommendation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that child care should not exceed more than 7% of families’ annual income.

Meanwhile, online lender NetCredit has found child care is more expensive than in-state college tuition in 28 out of 50 states. 

Aaron Ameen, a father of three young children, said he wanted concrete answers from the candidates in Thursday night’s debate. He and his wife moved from Washington state to Cypress, Texas, when she was pregnant with their twins in large part because of the high cost of child care in their old neighborhood: Ameen said it would have cost them up to $5,000 a month for three kids.

“The math wasn’t adding up,” said Ameen, a consultant. 

In Texas, the couple pays significantly less for day care for their 2-year-old and a nanny for their infant twins than they would have in Washington. But his wife, a project manager, only works part-time, and they are not sure if it would be worth her eventually returning to work full-time because of the added cost of more child care.

“With three kids, it’s quite a financial puzzle to solve,” he said. “Obviously, child care costs are only part of the cost of raising kids.”

In New York, Democratic state Sen. Jabari Brisport, who chairs the Children and Families Committee, has advocated for publicly funded universal child care and state funding to boost the salaries of child care workers. He said that he was “profoundly disappointed” while watching the debate that neither candidate gave a real answer to the affordability question. 

“The costs have just gone out of control,” Brisport said. “This needs to be something that’s part of the national conversation until we fix it.”

He said he was particularly frustrated that Biden, who has pushed for more affordable child care since before he became president, did not take the opportunity to be more specific. 

Mary Ignatius, executive director of Parent Voices, a grassroots organization that focuses on increasing access and affordability to child care, said the issue desperately needs more attention.

“Just like we would talk about bridges and roads, and schools, and basic infrastructure, child care requires significant investment if we are going to meet the needs of the families who need it,” she said. “But the return is so impactful.”

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