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child care costs
Courtney Pisano poses with her son, Michael Bonczewski, age 1. Pisano, a nursing student in Pennsylvania, spends a third of her monthly salary on six days worth of child care for Michael. Credit: Photo courtesy of Courtney Pisano

Courtney Pisano, 20, of Exeter, Pennsylvania, spends a third of her monthly income to pay half of the bill for three days a week of child care for her 17-month-old son, Michael. Her partner, Michael Bonczewski, pays the other half.

Crystal Shadle, 33, and her husband, Mike Shadle, 44, of Richmond, Virginia, spend 15 percent of their monthly income on full-time child care for their 4-year-old, Andy, and their 1-year-old, Elsie.

Annie Rankin, also 33, and her husband Greg Rankin, 35, of Austin, Texas, spend about 6.6 percent of their income on full-time care for their 19-month-old, James.

These families represent three constituencies of millennial voters with young children in child care: those living on the financial edge, those solidly middle class dealing with escalating child care prices and those doing well financially, but still struggling to find high-quality care. All three groups are growing as millennials enter their first full year as a majority of the country’s labor force.

And for the first time in decades, perhaps because 65 percent of children under six live in homes where all their parents work, both major party candidates have noticed that struggle. Both Hillary Clinton — who has spent much of her career focused on family and early childhood issues — and Donald Trump have made child care and family leave key planks of their platforms.

4% — Percentage of eligible children actually served by Early Head Start.

Clinton has proposed 12 weeks of federally guaranteed paid leave for all new parents, expanded free care for the poor, improved child care provider qualifications and salaries, and broader federal and state public preschool programs. She has also proposed using tax credits to keep child care costs under 10 percent of earned income for every family.

Related: Hillary Clinton answers 10 questions on early education

Trump would offer six weeks of paid leave to new mothers — but not new fathers — and a tax deduction for child care costs that experts say would primarily benefit the well-to-do.

Pisano, a nursing student, and the Shadles, both engineers, would benefit from Clinton’s plan, but probably not Trump’s.

The Rankins, who work in financial services,* wouldn’t benefit directly from the Clinton plan unless they had a second child, thereby doubling their child care expenses, or unless Clinton’s universal preschool proposal took off before their son turned 4. The Rankins are the only family who earn enough to potentially get a sizeable benefit from Trump’s tax deduction plan.

Pisano lives on loans and the wages ($660 a month) she earns working part-time in a hospital food service department. Her financial situation qualifies her for Early Head Start, a federal program for infants and toddlers living in poverty, and a Pennsylvania state program that would reduce her overall child care costs.

But only 4 percent of eligible children are served by Early Head Start, which does not receive enough funding to fulfill its mandate. Pisano’s son is not one of them. Pisano said she applied several times for the state program, but gave up when told that her applications had been lost.

Related: Is Head Start a failure?

Though it is a struggle, Pisano says finding a way to pay for day care is worth it. “If I don’t send him to day care, I don’t get the education and I don’t get the chance to improve his life and our family’s life,” Pisano said.

child care costs
Greg and Annie Rankin pose for a formal fall photo with their son, James, 1, and their pet dog. The Rankins, who work in financial services, spend 6 percent of their income on child care for James, which they say was hard to find near their home in Austin, Texas. Credit: Photo courtesy Annie Rankin

If it is enacted, Clinton’s plan would also help middle class families like the Shadles, who are spending more than 10 percent of their income on child care. Essentially, the Shadles would get to lower their tax bill by the amount they spent on child care above that 10 percent mark. For this Virginia family, that would mean taking about $7,000 off their annual tax bill.

All three couples said finding quality care was difficult. The Rankins had a particularly bad experience with the first center in which they enrolled their son, but they were able to pay for a nanny until they found a better fit for James. “What do people do that make less money than we do?” Rankin asked, saying that she’d first put her name on child care waitlists while still pregnant.

Rankin said she was not aware of a proposal that would fix that problem. After careful consideration and for reasons having little to do with child care, Rankin has decided to vote for Clinton in November.

Shadle was already planning to vote for Clinton when she heard about the candidate’s child care proposals. She approved.

“I think child care needs to be more affordable,” Shadle said. “We’re two full-time professionals, and if we had a third child, that could be a breaking point.”

Pisano said she hasn’t decided which way to cast her ballot in her first presidential election. Trump is very popular in her region of Pennsylvania. Still, Clinton’s child care plan sounds pretty good to her.

“If [my son] could get a spot in Head Start, that would be fantastic,” Pisano said. “Giving low income families a chance to do better for themselves means they could become something and not be stuck in the same spot their parents were stuck.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

*Correction: The Rankins work in financial services, but not investment banking, as was stated in an earlier version of this article.

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