In order for a child to be eligible for child care benefits under the current Democratic proposal, one of the parents they live with has to be engaged in one of the following activities:

  1. Full-time or part-time employment.
  2. Self-employment.
  3. Job search activities.
  4. Job training.
  5. Education.
  6. Work-limiting health treatment.
  7. Activities to prevent child abuse, neglect, or family violence.
  8. Work or training activities related to SNAP or TANF requirements.
  9. Taking leave under the FMLA or a paid leave program.

The Congressional Research Service roughly estimated that this activity test would exclude around 5 percent of children from child care benefits. Given the nature of the test, it’s clear that the excluded will be some of the poorest kids in the country.

Welfare Reform 2.0

Close observers of the American welfare state should notice an uncanny similarity between the activity test in the current Democratic child care bill and the activity test that was part of the 1996 welfare reform bill and that remains to this day as part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Under the TANF activity test, state eligibility for a TANF grant is conditioned upon states making sure that a certain percentage of people using the TANF program are engaged in one of the following activities:

  1. Employment.
  2. Work experience.
  3. On-the-job training.
  4. Job search and job readiness assistance.
  5. Community service programs.
  6. Vocational educational training.
  7. Job skills training.
  8. Attendance at a secondary school or GED program.
  9. Providing child care to someone in a community service program.

The TANF activity test has for decades been a major impediment for people seeking TANF assistance, which are almost entirely impoverished single mothers. The similar activity test in this child care legislation will probably have the same effect.

The TANF rules require states to ensure that a certain percentage of people on the program are meeting the TANF activity test, meaning that some TANF users get benefits despite not meeting the test. In the Democratic child care bill, all children whose parents fail to meet the activity test are excluded from child care benefits.


This activity test is, of course, very cruel and mean-spirited and harmful. But more than that, it is also confusing and stupid.

Although I don’t agree with this idea, it’s easy enough to see an intuition that says that parents who aren’t engaged in these kinds of activities don’t need child care services because they can watch their own kids and so they should not be given any services.

But if this is the theory you are operating off of, the rule should be that both parents in a two-parent household must meet the activity test, not just one of them. After all, if one of them does not meet it, then they are available to watch the kids. Yet the bill as written gives child care to stay-at-home parents provided they have a spouse who satisfies the activity test.

If a married stay-at-home parent becomes a single stay-at-home parent due to divorce or death, the resulting single-parent household is now in violation of the activity test and the child eventually becomes ineligible for child care services. Yet surely a parent in this situation is at least as much in need of child care after the divorce as before the divorce. In fact, they are probably in more need of it.

Another intuition for this kind of activity test may just be to indulge the usual punitive sentiments people have towards those they think are deadbeats or losers or drug addicts or whatever. Under this line of thinking, we shouldn’t provide expensive child care benefits to these kids because their parents are bad and dysfunctional people and, if anything, these benefits will just encourage their parents and their bad ways.

But if a kid has rotten parents, surely it would be a great thing for them to be able to spend their days in a high-quality child-friendly environment rather than with their dysfunctional parents. These kinds of kids would seem to benefit from child care services far more than kids in a two-parent family with a stay-at-home parent. And yet the bill’s activity test makes the latter eligible and the former ineligible.

None of this makes much sense. And it’s especially crazy in light of all the impassioned arguments Democrats have been making over the past year about why it is wrong to exclude the poorest kids from the Child Tax Credit. These kids should get cash but they shouldn’t get child care? It’s truly baffling.


If you aren’t sympathetic to the estimated 5 percent of kids, mostly living in very bad circumstances, who get knocked out of child care eligibility by this test, perhaps you can find some sympathy for all the parents of eligible kids who will have to go through the rigamarole of proving to their day care center that they are engaged in one of the required activities.

Do you want to provide paystubs to the day care center to prove you are employed? Do you want to provide the names and addresses of companies you’ve applied to in order to prove you are engaged in jobseeking? I could really do without all that, speaking personally.

Imagine someone whose eligible activity is “health treatment (including mental health and substance use treatment) for a condition that prevents the parent from participating in other eligible activities.” Are we seriously asking this person to tell their day care provider that they are in mental health or drug treatment? Would you want to tell your day care provider that? Do we have any concern at all for people’s privacy or dignity in this? Is this what we want the welfare state to be like, an institution that forces you to reveal everything about yourself, no matter how embarrassing, in order to access basic benefits?

These are the kinds of rules conservatives put in programs to make users miserable and discourage participation. It’s wild that a Democratic trifecta is doing it.

Open Season for Red States

It’s quite possible that some or all Republican-led states simply choose not to participate in the program, which means that nobody in those states gets any child care benefits. We have already seen this happen with the Medicaid expansion and the Democrats don’t seem too bothered about having the same thing happen with their signature child care legislation.

In Republican-led states that do participate in the program, it will be up to them to decide exactly how to enforce the activity test in the bill. Judging by how these states manage SNAP, UI, and Medicaid, you can be pretty confident that they will be as harsh as possible when applying this activity test. Including the test in the bill is thus just providing malicious state governments a way to make the experience of using the program miserable, especially for the very poor.

Eliminate the Test

Fixing this problem is as easy as eliminating the activity test from the bill. The Child Tax Credit proposal doesn’t have one. The pre-k proposal doesn’t have one. There is no reason the child care proposal should have one and many reasons it shouldn’t.