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J.D. Vance says universal child care is an attack on the working poor. That's ridiculous.

The "Hillbilly Elegy" author dunks on free child care for working parents but doesn't support the American Families Plan.
Photo illustration of children at a day care.
Conservatives can't praise the nuclear family and withhold the help those families need.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” the book that poor-splained Appalachia to a certain segment of well-off society just ahead of the start of the Trump administration, did a bad tweet Thursday. This is not entirely novel in and of itself: Vance is considering running to replace Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in 2022, and his tweets have grown worse and worse as the weeks have worn on.

This particular bad tweet, though, is worth our attention not because of who wrote it but because of the fallacy it exposes. Namely, it's that the nuclear family structure Republicans champion, where one parent works and the other raises the children at home, is a structure that literally can’t function these days for many Americans without the type of government intervention that is anathema to them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what Vance wrote Thursday: "'Universal day care' is class war against normal people." This was actually part of a thread on the matter, which began here:

Vance is no troll. He comes equipped with a chart, this one from an op-ed written by W. Bradford Wilcox in the Deseret News. Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, so it may not surprise you to learn his argument centers on why universal day care is actually a net negative for the youngest children, citing research on the effects on Quebecois children in the late 1990s.

Wilcox actually raises some interesting points about the effects of separation from parents at a young age on how kids develop that I think warrant further discussion. But the chart Vance attached to his tweet is without context and doesn’t really support his claim that this is an issue of Democrats attacking the working poor.

The data he cites from American Compass, a conservative think tank, shows that people without a four-year degree would prefer a situation where one parent works full time and one parent provides child care in the home. That’s fair and honestly unsurprising — as far as the options available in the survey go, I can see how that one is more appealing to many people, especially people whose low-paying jobs, quite frankly, suck. (Let’s leave aside for a moment the unspoken gender norm that’s at play here, where the wife in this hypothetical is most often the one who stays at home.)

But the first problem here is that Wilcox isn’t just arguing against universal day care. He’s also arguing that Americans without a college degree would rather have direct cash assistance from the government or a wage subsidy that boosts their family’s income. That’s pretty much exactly what the child tax credit expansion in the American Rescue Plan does — put cash in the pockets of parents directly every month. It’s also an idea that every Republican in Congress voted against as part of the full bill.

President Joe Biden said in his joint address to Congress on Wednesday that he wants to make that expansion permanent. Vance would prefer a plan like one from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., offer smaller smaller payments and under more constrained conditions. As far as policies go, it’s a start but wouldn’t aid nearly as many families on as regular a basis as Biden’s proposed permanent expansion.

So if that’s off the table, then how about a wage increase for Americans without a college degree? They make up about 78 percent of minimum wage workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And yet, nope, that’s off the table, too: Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which he touted again Wednesday night, is a nonstarter for most Republicans. Only a few in Congress have come out in favor of even a modest boost, to $10 an hour.

The Heritage Foundation also argued that raising the minimum wage to $15 would come with a corresponding spike in child care costs across the country, making day care even more unaffordable than it is. And that’s saying something, considering that in 2015 the Economic Policy Institute found that minimum wage workers “would have to spend every paycheck from January until September,” as The Washington Post put it then, to pay for a year of full-time infant care, spending at least 30 percent of their earnings.

Alright, so what about Biden’s proposal inside the American Families Plan, which he rolled out Wednesday night, to cap child care costs that a family pays at just 7 percent of income for low- and middle-income families? Oh, that’s also probably a no-go? Even though 64 percent of Americans were in favor of the plan’s components in a recent Monmouth University poll? Hmm.

Well, if not child care, then how about another solution Biden has proposed: universal preschool?

“We need to make sure every child will have access to high-quality universal pre-K,” Biden said in December. “I’m not talking about day care. I’m talking about universal pre-K that is starting at age 3, 4.”

Surely, you have to like the idea of getting kids into school earlier, something that school districts around the country already provide. (I went to pre-kindergarten starting at age 4; my younger brother was enrolled in Head Start at age 3.)

Oh, still a “no” from Republicans in Congress, because of the tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations Biden has proposed to pay for it? OK.

At this point, you can see the problem with this stance Vance holds. You don't want kids to go to preschool so lower-education families that depend on both parents' paychecks can actually earn a living wage. But you also don't want to raise the minimum wage so only one parent can work. But you also don't want to pay for programs that would allow for a parent to stay home?

Vance’s book, after initial rave reviews from many on the center-left, has since been critiqued for its reliance on a narrative of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

“The book is not subtle in its message: Working-class grunts are to blame for their own struggles,” Lisa Pruitt, a University of California, Davis law professor wrote in December. “If they’d just get off their duffs, go to church and stay married, everything would be OK.”

But that sentiment doesn’t work in today’s economy. It didn’t even work in the 1950s of the baby boomers’ youth, when massive government programs were needed to expand the middle class and provide the foundation for the nuclear family. Conservatives like Vance can’t both claim to be the real backers of the working class and stand in the way of Biden providing the tools needed to let them support their families.