On Tuesday evening, the Democratic-debate moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel posed a challenging question to the presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Tiffany, a young mother in Iowa who’d had to quit a job she loved because child care was eating up two-thirds of her income, had written in, pointing out that many parents in the state had to either quit their job or settle for cheaper, lower-quality child care. “How will you prioritize accessing quality affordable child care in your first 100 days in office?” Tiffany wanted to know.
“It makes no sense for child care to cost two-thirds of somebody’s income. We’ve got to drive it to 7 percent or below, and zero for those families who are living in poverty,” Buttigieg began, citing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ standard of 7 percent of household income as the high-water mark for child-care affordability. “But this is happening to folks at every level of the income spectrum,” he added, promptly coining something like a catchphrase. “I meet professionals who sometimes say that they’re working in order to be able to afford child care in order to be able to be working.”
The ouroboros-like dilemma of having a job that only barely covers the expenses of child care, which you need only because you have a job, existed long before Buttigieg put clever wording to it. Arguably, it has existed for as long as individual people have both worked and had kids, and has been exacerbated in the past half century by the normalization of households in which both parents or the sole parent work outside the home and the skyrocketing costs of child care. But working to afford child care in order to work is both a catchy, pithy description of a problem that has plagued working parents for decades and an oversimplification of it.