Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:

  • Public opinion polls suggest Americans are increasingly concerned with the rising cost of raising children.
  • A Democratic presidential candidate makes government support for child care one of the centerpieces of their election campaign.
  • The candidate eventually loses that election but the new Republican administration recognizes the public’s demand for policies that address the problem.
  • In response, Republicans float proposals for a refundable child tax credit to assist families with child care costs.
  • Despite the promise of the administration’s proposal, anti-poverty groups remain on the sidelines.
  • Instead, they throw their support behind a proposal from Congressional Democrats for a child care package made up of new regulations and grants to states for subsidizing daycare centers with the goal of outflanking the administration.

If you thought I was describing the recently announced Child Care for Working Families Act, you would be making a good guess, but what I was actually describing is the Act for Better Child Care Services (ABC) bill from 1988. Replace Michael Dukakis with Hillary Clinton, George H.W. Bush with Donald Trump, and we could be talking about 1988 or 2017.

The similarities are more than a coincidence. They suggest a pattern that provides us with lessons we can use as we figure out the best way forward when it comes to helping families. That lesson is unequivocal: Anti-poverty groups should throw their support behind efforts to expand the child tax credit rather than spend too much political capital on a child care proposal doomed for failure. To see why, we need to look at how the 1988 episode played out.

The ABC bill immediately ran into opposition on two grounds. First, social conservatives reacted negatively to emphasis on child care centers as the only form of child care to receive support in the bill. Families who relied on care outside of this system were ineligible and there was fear that subsidies for church-based child care would be challenged on constitutional grounds. This alone was not enough to kill the bill, though. Second, and more importantly, everyone knew the cost of the program would explode, putting major strains on state and federal budgets.

Reading the writing on the wall, a few anti-poverty advocates including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Bob Greenstein and Sen. Thomas Downey (D-NY) quietly backed away from the ABC bill and threw their support behind more politically viable tax credit proposals. The Bush administration’s child tax credit was too new and untested at the time, so they pushed for an expansion of what was then a very small earned income tax credit (EITC) as an alternative.

This strategy, advocating for tax credits over subsidies for child care centers, paid off handsomely. It opened space for what Lydia Bean and Niskanen Center Senior Fellow Steven Teles call a transpartisan coalition between conservative pro-family groups and liberal anti-poverty groups. Working together, they were able to usher an EITC expansion through Congress and onto President Bush’s desk in 1990. The Republican proposal for a CTC was eventually resurrected and enacted in 1997 with support from the same coalition. In terms of results, the pro-family/anti-poverty coalition has been one of the most successful drivers of policy in recent history.

Unfortunately, the future success of this coalition is now in peril. While pro-family groups have lined up behind the latest Republican proposal to expand the CTC as the most politically viable policy for putting more money in the pockets of working- and middle-class families, there has been a deafening silence from anti-poverty groups.

It is tempting to think that anti-poverty groups can or should spend all their time pushing for direct subsidization of child care because a CTC expansion is such an obviously good idea that it will happen all on its own. Yet history tells us this is a mistake. Pro-family conservatives are only one of several forces within the Republican coalition. When it comes to tax reform, business groups care little for family policy, and often see it as a threat to their own agenda. When the CTC was initially proposed back in 1995, business groups worked quietly to shrink it as much as possible in order to leave more room for capital gains tax cuts. Pro-family conservatives were only able to fend off attacks with the help of anti-poverty liberals.

The same dynamics are at play today. Business groups see the current proposal to expand the CTC as crowding out their favored tax cuts and are quietly working to undermine it. Without the support of anti-poverty coalition partners such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Children’s Defense Fund, proposals to expand the CTC to $2,000 or $3,000 could be cut back to $1,500 or less. That would mean less money for struggling families trying to raise children.

We know what we need to do to make sure that does not happen. History will not look kindly on those who saw it happening and did nothing.

Joshua T. McCabe is the assistant dean of social sciences at Endicott College and author of The Fiscalization of Social Policy: How Taxpayers Trumped Children in the Fight Against Child Poverty.