On Tuesday night, President Trump called for bipartisan support for his child care and paid family leave proposals. The attention to this issue, largely driven by Ivanka Trump's influence, is commendable. But the costly plan for allowing greater tax write-offs for child care expenses is badly designed and misdirected – it would benefit the affluent while ignoring the realities of low- and middle-income families who need help the most – while the paid leave proposal is inadequate.
Too many children lack educational opportunity when their growth and learning is most rapid: between birth and kindergarten entry. Early learning opportunities – from bonding time with parents to high-quality child care and preschool – lay the foundation for healthy development, lifelong learning, and economic success. Unfortunately, there are huge inequalities in who has access to high-quality early learning experiences, and this further cements the stark economic inequalities across generations.
The United States is unique in its scant support for families with young children. Good child care is a basic need for working parents, but it is very expensive and hard to find. Families with children under five spend an average 11 percent of their incomes on child care, and those with incomes below $50,000 spend 22 percent. These are families' actual out-of-pocket expenses -- too many children spend their days in low-quality, unstable, and even detrimental situations in their early years because it is what families can afford.
The President's tax deduction proposal for child care expenses would be exceedingly generous to higher-income families, according to the Tax Policy Center, while leaving out many low and middle-income parents with less tax liability. These are families forced to rely on low-cost arrangements, as it's all they can afford. These are the families who need help the most – but they would receive little or no benefit. Taken alone, this proposal would only increase the inequalities of opportunity in early childhood.
And what about paid parental leave, of which little discussion and few details have emerged from the Trump administration? Just 13 percent of private sector workers currently have access to paid family leave, and only 1 in 20 lower wage workers – arguably those who need it most – have it, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Family and Medical Leave Act provides for only unpaid leave at the birth of a child, with just 60 percent of workers even eligible, and far fewer able to afford to take unpaid time when also facing the added costs to families of a new baby. Some parents have to leave their jobs altogether, facing losses of income and others return to work very quickly after the birth of a child.
On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump proposed a 6 week benefit for mothers only. On Tuesday, he used more inclusive language, proposing to "help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave." This is a shift in the right direction, acknowledging the important role fathers' play in their newborns' lives. But, the 6 week leave period is too short - evidence shows that longer periods of leave are associated with increased breastfeeding, child immunizations, decreased maternal depression, and even reductions in child injury and death.
We have spent years researching the parenting and child care needs of American families. In our new book, Cradle to Kindergarten: A new plan to combat inequality, we describe the crisis, so familiar to parents with young children, and offer a comprehensive plan based on the research evidence that diagnoses the challenges and charts a strategy forward to help families from day one.
We propose a child care "assurance" that provides all families with a child under age five with financial assistance to make good child care affordable. Our plan would provide help to families with employed parents with incomes below $60,000. Families would pay on a sliding scale to access early care and learning opportunities of their choice, with subsidies to assure that no family would pay more than 10 percent of their income on child care. We further propose an expanded tax credit to support a broader array of paid care arrangements, including support for school-age children and higher-income families, making it refundable for those with limited tax liability.
A complementary policy for paid parental leave would guarantee families with working parents 12 to 16 weeks per family of partially paid, job-protected leave at the birth or adoption of a child. Parents would get a percentage of their wages during the weeks each is on leave through the existing Social Security system, recognizing that being born and having a child are common experiences like old-age or disability for which we would insure economic security.
A reliable guarantee of paid leave and financial assistance for child care offers families the flexibility to meet their preferences and needs to care for and educate their children from birth until school entry, including as they shift over time. Our plan also supports parental employment and its continuity following childbirth – vital for our economy.
Trump's attention to one of the most important concerns of American life today – caring for young children – is praiseworthy. While care-giving challenges are shared by families of all backgrounds, they are starker for struggling middle- and low-income families trying to maintain a foothold in today's economy. Relying on tax credits, deductions, or other incomplete solutions would leave out the children who need the attention the most.
Commentary by Ajay Chaudry and Taryn Morrissey, co-authors of Cradle to Kindergarten: A new plan to combat inequality with Christina Weiland and Hirokazu Yoshikawa. Chaudry is senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.
Morrissey is assistant professor of public policy at the School of Public Affairs at American University.
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