The largest demographic cohort of Americans — the more than 70 million millennials — is in its prime childbearing years.

If millennials ever get around to having children — American fertility rates are in steady decline — they’ll soon make child care one of the hottest issues in Minnesota politics.

“You’re right to anticipate this issue,” says Kim Crockett, vice president and senior policy fellow at the conservative Center of the American Experiment.

State Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, a Senate GOP point person on child care, says it’s already here.

“I don’t know that it’s a sleeper issue. It’s a very real issue right now,” Weber says. His own Rock County does not have a single child-care center.

On the DFL side, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler told me that health care, higher education and child care form the troika of issues in need of attention, as rising costs are quickly outpacing families’ ability to pay.

Ask anyone you know with a child in day care what it costs. And then ask them what their mortgage is. You’ll find day care is often more expensive. And we haven’t even started talking about quality.

That’s how you create a political cyclone.

You can imagine where the two parties come down.

Crockett and Weber say government is artificially raising the cost of running a day-care center with expensive, intrusive regulations.

They also say if government gets in the business of caring for 4-year-olds in the form of prekindergarten, it will drive more day-care providers out of business. That’s because 4-year-olds are where the money is — they’re easier and cheaper to look after.

For the most part, government should stay out of it, Crockett says. “Less is more.”

Winkler says other countries manage to provide quality universal child care without too much trouble.

He quickly acknowledges that it’s expensive and will require higher taxes from working and middle-class Minnesotans to pay for it.

“A modest middle- and lower-income tax increase would generate vast benefits for those people. Together we can buy something nicer for ourselves than if we bought it separately,” he says.

The pitch here is similar to that for Medicare or Social Security, but for child care.

For months Winkler has been selling an idea that doesn’t have much broad appeal in American politics: that there’s no free lunch.

“If you want these things, you have to pay for them. Why expect your government to create things for nothing when no one else does in this life?” Winkler says.

Politically, the two parties face the usual risks: If the DFL is going to institute a broad-based child-care program, it had better work. Republicans need to develop solutions that would presumably incorporate their laissez-faire economic philosophy without seeming to turn their backs on the problem.

Both parties need to get moving on this issue. The millennial babies are coming.

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican