The cost of childcare is soaring. A guaranteed income could help 

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The schadenfreude must have triggered seismographs from Sacramento to Siberia after a cargo load of Bentleys, Porsches and other luxury cars sank off the Azores last week. For once, the rich weren’t different from you and me. Their luck sucked, too.

That inversion of the normal order, however, was anomalous, as confirmed the same week by more prosaic news for people on more prosaic budgets: The cost of a babysitter in America is roaring even faster than the four-decade-high inflation rate.

Paying someone to watch the kids soared 11 percent last year over 2020, says UrbanSitter, a company liaising families with child care that has tracked babysitting costs for 11 years. Parents in Boston, near which I live, paid an average hourly sitting wage just shy of $20, the sixth most expensive among cities in the report.

New York, averaging $23.45, topped the list; San Antonio, at $14 an hour, had the lowest rate in UrbanSitter’s survey of 10,000 families. (Another study put Boston’s average even higher, at $21.50, tying Seattle for fourth among 43 cities. The two surveys differ by pennies but agree that you’re not imagining the swollen sitting bill.)

Partly, this is a consequence of the throttled labor supply. Partly, it’s due to the Great Resignation; UrbanSitter says teachers, nurses, and others have bailed on old careers and migrated to child-watching, demanding pay commensurate with their credentials. Toss in Boston’s famously overpriced housing, and the Athens of America requires Olympian wages to get by. Thank God our teenage son is responsible and too old for a minder.

Partly, this is a consequence of the throttled labor supply. Partly, it’s due to the Great Resignation...

Some families might be able to draft family for sitter duty (we couldn’t, as our relatives live out of state). Friends aren’t always available or willing. Even granting these options exist for some, you have to reside in the Mariana Trench to be unaware that COVID-19 has spotlighted other financial inequities besetting Americans who are not to the manor born. At least Massachusetts is among the 15 states guaranteeing paid sick leave; nationally, 33 million low-paid workers don’t have it. Congress let expire a COVID-related, federal leave policy and, apropos of paying the sitter, expanded child tax credits as well.

The latter, left in the rubble of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, is something the president plugged in last week's State of the Union as part of a slimmed-down BBB. Sen. Joe Manchin, slayer of Biden’s original bill, now says that if the government chisels its deficit by rolling back some of Donald Trump’s tax cuts and wrestling down prescription drug costs, he’ll support one big domestic initiative.

Perhaps the senator no longer loses sleep over nightmares of parents diverting expanded child credits for drug abuse. If he’s purged himself of that piffle — studies of the credits and other programs have affirmed their use as intended — Manchin’s ante is an opening to help needy families pay not just the sitter but other costs as well.

The best approach, I’ve argued, would be to test, and enact if successful, a guaranteed income to poor households of $68,000, the national median, replacing our current safety net, except for those with difficulty managing money. With moderates like Manchin demanding fiscal responsibility — the case for which during inflationary times is not unreasonable — a guaranteed income could be financed with money we’re already spending on SNAP, housing vouchers, Medicaid, and other anti-poverty programs.

That means money from the sage repeal of Trump’s tax giveaways could go toward the deficit, surely fiddle music to Manchin’s West Virginian ears.

This guaranteed income would be generous, bureaucratically simple and a boon to recipients burdened by bewildering eligibility rules for numerous, existing programs. It would empower them to spend on needs our current safety net covers — and some it doesn’t, like babysitters and diapers. (Yes, “diaper need” is real for families who struggle to afford that parenting essential.)

The timid may balk at scrapping proven anti-poverty measures dating to the New Deal and Great Society. Sen. Mitt Romney’s proposed alternative to Biden’s child subsidies is actually more generous, yet critics still object to Romney’s paying for it by diverting money from existing programs.

The best approach ... would be to test, and enact if successful, a guaranteed income to poor households

But no one can object that giving households $68,000 a year, rising as the median income rises, will leave recipients worse off than our current anti-poverty regime, which would be rendered unnecessary. Giving cash instead of goods is increasingly Plan A in combating international poverty; more than half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed providing the median income to poor Americans.

The salient question is whether Democrats aren’t too constipated in their political imagination (Trump-loving Republicans surely are) to pass such a plan. If Congress’s craven caucus is too powerful to overcome, Biden’s second-best option would be to negotiate some version of Romney’s child credits expansion, while leaving the existing safety net untouched.

Second-best, certainly. But at least it would give desperately needed help with paying the babysitter.

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Headshot of Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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