Elizabeth Warren’s Universal Child Care Plan Is a Good Start. Other 2020 Candidates Can Up the Ante.

Warren’s plan represents a big step forward, but we should demand something far bolder to address the child care crisis in America.

Kathleen Geier February 26, 2019

Elizabeth Warren was the first 2020 candidate to release a detailed child care proposal, but hopefully not the last. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of the most out­ra­geous fea­tures of Amer­i­can life is our lack of a func­tion­al child care sys­tem. When it comes to child care, we’re dis­grace­ful­ly behind the rest of the world. The sta­tis­tics are hair-rais­ing: For two-earn­er fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States, aver­age child care costs are more than twice as high, as a per­cent­age of fam­i­ly income, as they are in many oth­er devel­oped coun­tries in the OECD. For sin­gle par­ent fam­i­lies, these costs are more than four times as high. In 28 states, a year of child care is more expen­sive than annu­al tuition at a pub­lic college.

Child care rep­re­sents both a grow­ing cri­sis and an urgent polit­i­cal pri­or­i­ty for two main rea­sons. The first is that redis­trib­ut­ing the bur­den of car­ing labor is essen­tial to wom­en’s free­dom and auton­o­my. For near­ly 20 years, the labor force par­tic­i­pa­tion of Amer­i­can women has been falling. Researchers say that the ris­ing costs of child care and our lack of fam­i­ly-friend­ly poli­cies are what’s dri­ving the decline.

Sec­ond, ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion pro­grams are a crit­i­cal tool in fight­ing racial and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. By the time poor kids and non­white kids enter the K‑12 school sys­tem, on aver­age, they are already sig­nif­i­cant­ly behind their whiter, wealth­i­er peers. Preschool helps nar­row that gap.

But despite the fact that child care is essen­tial to jump­start­ing the stalled gen­der rev­o­lu­tion, in recent decades, Amer­i­can fem­i­nists have giv­en the sub­ject short shrift. Main­stream fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tions have failed to orga­nize around the issue. And how many fem­i­nist op-eds have you read about child care, as opposed to oth­er vital fem­i­nist con­cerns such as abor­tion or sex­u­al assault? After Richard Nixon vetoed a 1971 bill that would have cre­at­ed a nation­al child care sys­tem, child care essen­tial­ly dropped off the polit­i­cal map. Ever since, as a polit­i­cal issue, it’s been dead­er than disco.

That’s why it’s been so excit­ing that late­ly, there’s been an upsurge in pub­lic aware­ness of the issue. Pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als includ­ing Katha Pol­litt and Matt Bru­enig have addressed the issue in recent op-eds and pol­i­cy reports. And last week, Eliz­a­beth War­ren made child care one of her first big pol­i­cy proposals.

Before ana­lyz­ing Warren’s plan, it’s impor­tant to lay out a vision of what our child care sys­tem would look like. Ide­al­ly, child care would be:

1. Free

Cost should not be a bar­ri­er to care.

2. Uni­ver­sal

All chil­dren would be includ­ed. There would be enough slots to accom­mo­date every­one and no child would be turned away due to lack of funds. Uni­ver­sal­i­ty would also mean that kids of all class­es would par­tic­i­pate in the same child care sys­tem. That is a good thing, because when a social pro­gram serves not just work­ing peo­ple but the rich and the mid­dle class, qual­i­ty tends to be high­er and polit­i­cal sup­port more enduring.

3. Pub­licly fund­ed by the fed­er­al government

Pub­lic fund­ing is essen­tial, because as we’ve seen, left to its own devices, the mar­ket does a ter­ri­ble job of pro­vid­ing afford­able, acces­si­ble care. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should be the enti­ty pay­ing for child care, because in our fed­er­al­ist sys­tem if we leave it to state and local gov­ern­ments, fund­ing will be less gen­er­ous and less equi­table. Peo­ple in con­ser­v­a­tive parts of the coun­try and in minor­i­ty and low-income neigh­bor­hoods will be screwed.

Also, state and local bud­gets are more vul­ner­a­ble to eco­nom­ic down­turns, where­as in lean eco­nom­ic times the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can bor­row mon­ey to fund essen­tial services.

4. Pub­licly provided

Pub­lic pro­vi­sion would take the prof­it motive out of care, where it does­n’t belong, and also pro­vide demo­c­ra­t­ic account­abil­i­ty. Pub­lic pro­vi­sion also guar­an­tees that our child care sys­tem will be sec­u­lar and gov­ern­ment mon­ey won’t go to reli­gious institutions.

5. Acces­si­ble

At the height of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism in the 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, even estab­lish­ment fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tions like NOW were call­ing for 247 child care cen­ters nation­wide. In an ide­al world, those would exist. And child care cen­ters, like pub­lic schools, would be locat­ed in every neigh­bor­hood, with­in a walk­a­ble dis­tance from your home or eas­i­ly acces­si­ble via pub­lic transportation.

6. High-qual­i­ty

Facil­i­ties should be state of the art and staff should be peo­ple who tru­ly care about chil­dren and are well-trained. The edu­ca­tion­al com­po­nents should be high-qual­i­ty as well.

7. Pro­vid­ed by work­ers who are well-compensated

Because it’s con­sid­ered wom­en’s work, child care, like oth­er car­ing pro­fes­sions, is noto­ri­ous­ly under­paid. That needs to change. Child care work needs to be respect­ed and val­ued and that should be reflect­ed in work­ers’ paychecks.

8. Orga­nized in a way that pro­motes racial, gen­der, and eco­nom­ic equality

This is crit­i­cal. As advo­cates have not­ed, the Amer­i­can child care sys­tem is plagued by child care deserts: com­mu­ni­ties, many of them low-income and pre­dom­i­nant­ly non­white, where qual­i­ty afford­able child care is scarce. Any child care pro­pos­al worth its salt needs to address these inequities and make qual­i­ty care acces­si­ble in places where it doesn’t cur­rent­ly exist. 

In addi­tion, the child care sys­tem should not rein­force gen­der inequities. That’s why we should take a hard pass on plans (such as Matt Bruenig’s oth­er­wise excel­lent child care pro­pos­al) that would pay par­ents to stay home to take care of their kids on a per­ma­nent basis. Such schemes tend to incen­tivize tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles instead of abol­ish­ing them. As fem­i­nist schol­ar Kathi Weeks argues in her book The Prob­lem with Work, the mod­ern social­ist fem­i­nist alter­na­tive to such plans (and the suc­ces­sor to sec­ond-wave feminism’s wages for house­work cam­paigns) is the uni­ver­sal basic income (UBI). A UBI would pro­vide eco­nom­ic sup­port for peo­ple who leave the paid labor force to care for their chil­dren, but because it’s not tied to care work there’s less of a risk that it would rein­scribe gen­der inequality.

Those eight com­po­nents are the ide­al, though the kind of sys­tem I’ve out­lined like­ly doesn’t exist any­where in the world right now. Even in the Nordic coun­tries that many of us on the Left would like to emu­late, child care is not free. It’s far more afford­able, but par­ents are charged fees or slid­ing scale payments.

Right now, the child care sys­tem in the Unit­ed States is a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure on all eight of those cri­te­ria. Per­haps the best you can say is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

Cer­tain­ly, com­pared to the sta­tus quo, Warren’s plan is a giant step for­ward. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it does­n’t go near­ly as far as it should. It would cer­tain­ly move us clos­er to all eight of my desired cri­te­ria, but for a pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat run­ning in 2020 we should expect — and demand — some­thing much bolder.

The prob­lem is not so much that Warren’s plan isn’t free. No one was expect­ing that and to its cred­it, the pro­pos­al would go a long way to mak­ing child care more afford­able. No fam­i­ly would spend more than 7 per­cent of their income on child care and fam­i­lies earn­ing under 200 per­cent of the pover­ty line would­n’t have to pay any­thing at all. The sub­si­dies would also appar­ent­ly go direct­ly to the provider — none of that com­pli­cat­ed tax cred­it non­sense that was the main fea­ture of Hillary Clin­ton’s child care plan.

Oth­er fea­tures of Warren’s pro­pos­al include pro­vi­sions to increase the pay of child care work­ers and invest in” their train­ing. But rais­ing the licens­ing and accred­i­ta­tion stan­dards for child care work­ers cre­ates poten­tial pit­falls, espe­cial­ly if it means forc­ing them to get expen­sive col­lege and per­haps unnec­es­sary degrees. There aren’t enough ear­ly child­hood and edu­ca­tion pro­grams in pub­lic col­leges to meet demand, which forces child care work­ers to get their degrees from rapa­cious for-prof­it col­leges and pil­ing up moun­tains of debt in the process. And even after receiv­ing a degree, their wages are still extreme­ly low.

The biggest dis­ap­point­ment, though, is that there’s not more in the pro­pos­al about cre­at­ing pub­lic pro­vid­ed care. Yes, there is some­thing: War­ren pro­pos­es cre­at­ing a net­work of Child Care and Ear­ly Learn­ing Cen­ters and Fam­i­ly Child Care Homes.” But those cen­ters and homes would not nec­es­sar­i­ly be run by state or local gov­ern­ments and at least some would be con­tract­ed to non­prof­it groups, includ­ing faith-based orga­ni­za­tions.” That fed­er­al dol­lars will be going to reli­gious insti­tu­tions rais­es some con­cerns. How can we ensure pub­lic mon­ey will not be used for reli­gious proselytizing?

But the role of reli­gious insti­tu­tions in Warren’s plan is a minor prob­lem com­pared to the ele­phant in the room: the plan’s lack of a robust infra­struc­ture for pub­licly pro­vid­ed care. Her plan will cre­ate increased demand for care but doesn’t do near­ly enough to ensure that there are enough providers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in under­served areas. And if the peo­ple who need child care most can’t access it, how uni­ver­sal is her plan, really?

That said, Warren’s pro­pos­al com­pares favor­ably to those of the rest of the pres­i­den­tial field. As yet, none of the oth­er can­di­dates have announced a major child care pro­pos­al, though a num­ber of them — War­ren, Kamala Har­ris, Cory Book­er, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gilli­brand and Amy Klobuchar — have co-spon­sored a less sweep­ing bill that would expand access to child care for low- and mid­dle-income fam­i­lies. In addi­tion, Gilli­brand and Klobuchar have co-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion to expand the child care tax cred­it. Bernie Sanders ran on uni­ver­sal child care in 2016 but nev­er released a detailed pro­pos­al. In 2011 he intro­duced an ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion bill, but that plan didn’t go as far as Warren’s.

Warren’s pro­gram would estab­lish the prin­ci­ple that the U.S. gov­ern­ment should play a far more sweep­ing role in cre­at­ing afford­able, acces­si­ble child care. To that end, it’s poten­tial­ly one of those non-reformist reforms that even­tu­al­ly get us to the place where we should be. As such it should be wel­comed, even though at this point we have a right to demand far more. Hope­ful­ly the oth­er 2020 can­di­dates will step up and raise the ante.

Kath­leen Geier has writ­ten for The Nation, The Baf­fler and The New Repub­lic. She lives in Chicago.
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