Donald Trump is heading to the Philadelphia suburbs Tuesday night, and he’s bringing Ivanka and child-care subsidies with him.
To get hired by the American people this November, the former Apprentice host will need to improve his standing with the college-educated white voters who comprise the GOP’s upscale wing. This is especially true in blue-leaning Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, where Trump’s strategy for overcoming Democrats’ historical advantage relies on posting unusually high numbers with white working-class voters — while retaining the GOP’s strength in big-city suburbs.
So far, fiscally conservative but culturally moderate degree-wielding Republicans haven’t quite rallied around their standard-bearer. For some, his tax cuts have proven inadequate compensation for his transparent misogyny and/or the social stigma of being associated with a demagogue who disparages minority groups while touting his penis size.
Trump has tried to lessen that stigma by “softening” his image (behaving himself through an entire photo op with the Mexican president and expressing his sorrow that all black people in the United States have nothing in their lives worth preserving).
Now the GOP nominee aims to sweeten his offer on the policy front, laying out a plan for subsidized child care aimed at the middle and upper-middle classes. Trump first proposed making child-care expenses tax deductible in August, but at that time he offered few details on how such a policy would be structured. Here are the rudiments of his current proposal:
- Working parents would be able to deduct the average cost of child care in their state on their income taxes, for up to four children. Private-school tuition would qualify as an expense. Individuals who make more than $250,000 and couples who earn more than $500,000 would not qualify.
- Families with too little income to qualify for the deduction would receive up to $1,200 a year in “spending rebates” through the earned income tax credit.
- There would be a provision that ensures “stay-at-home parents receive the same tax deduction as working parents, offering compensation for the job they’re already doing.”
- Six weeks of maternity leave would be guaranteed, through a restructuring on unemployment insurance. The Trump campaign claims (absurdly) that this guarantee could be funded by cracking down on unemployment-insurance “fraud.”
- Elder-care costs would also be deductible.
- All families would be eligible to make tax-deductible contributions to “dependent-care savings accounts,” and Uncle Sam would match 50 percent on deposits up to $1,000 per year.
- Dependent-care savings accounts would be available to all, allowing families to make tax-free deposits.
This plan has its problems. Most crucially, the funding mechanism for maternity leave is to recover billions of dollars by ending a fictional epidemic of unemployment-insurance fraud. Of course, it seems a little silly to quibble over the funding mechanism of any single Trump plan when his overall fiscal policy calls for enormous tax cuts, increases in military spending, and maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits at their current levels.
The plan is also more than a bit regressive, in the sense that it provides way larger benefits to the middle and upper-middle classes than it does to the working poor: Poor families’ rebates are capped at $1,200 a year; middle-class families’ tax deductions cap out at roughly $11,600.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s child-care plan makes alleviating the burdens facing America’s poorest families one of its top priorities. Her proposal would double funding for the Early Head Start–Child Care program and increase other federal child-care subsidies targeted at low-income families. (The idea that the future of America’s social welfare debate could be an argument between Democrats who favor lower-cost, narrowly targeted aid to the poor and Republicans who favor more expensive benefits targeted at the middle-class is an interesting one).
Still, assuming a nonfictional funding source (or debt-financing), it’s a program that would genuinely make life better for some non-multimillionaires in this country. Which is more than you can say about most Republican proposals on social spending.
Ultimately, the details of the policy may matter less than the broader message that they signal: Despite his reputation for chauvinism, Trump (or, at least, his daughter) is actually more sensitive to the problems facing (largely white, middle-class) working mothers than a typical Republican (or, at least, a typical misogynist).
To maximize the symbolic female-friendliness of Trump’s pitch, he will bring his daughter Ivanka — who helped craft the child-care policy — to its unveiling. For Ivanka Trump, helping her father soften his image is both a means of aiding his election and protecting her own embattled business interests: Ivanka has built her career around a lifestyle brand that caters to professional-class mothers trying to have it all — one of the many demographics her father has alienated over the past 15 months.
That brand will probably be worth less if it’s associated with “the hateful demagogue” who lost than with the (institutionally normalized) President Trump. The good news for Ivanka is that the latter possibility, while still improbable, looks more likely today than it did a few weeks ago.