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Opinion Elizabeth Warren could get America to have more kids again

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Las Vegas on Feb. 17. (John Locher/AP)

“Bringing up children has indeed become a crummy financial bargain.” Okay, that’s a bit harsh.

“Some women have found [the] solution: Don’t have children.” Now that seems like a bridge too far.

Elizabeth Warren delivered this dire assessment and equally dire remedy to our child-care crisis more than 15 years ago, when she was a Harvard law professor researching bankruptcy. Those and other grim lines — “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse” — can be found in her book “The Two-Income Trap,” a 2003 polemic on middle-class America’s perilous economic situation.

Warren, a parent herself, didn’t actually want her solution to become the default choice. But it’s become clear that many Americans — wittingly or not — have taken that road.

The U.S. birth rate tied its historical low in 2018, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a continued slide downward following the Great Recession, the number of children an average American woman can expect to have in her lifetime has fallen to 1.73, and may keep declining. That’s well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family, but also significantly below the number of children that women say they want.

And their reasoning lines up with Warren’s prediction, too: It’s the money. In a New York Times survey of 2,000 parents who’d had fewer children than they would have liked, 44 percent said they couldn’t afford to have another child; 64 percent laid the blame on the ruinously high cost of child care.

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Bridge too far or not, Warren had predicted the future.

If her identification of the problem was spot on in 2003, Warren’s suggestions for fixing it at the time were a little tentative. Plan, plan, plan, “The Two-Income Trap” proposed. Consider having one parent stay at home, and write your representative in Congress.

But it’s 2019 now, and Warren has long since become that representative in Congress — as well as a 2020 presidential candidate. And while her analysis and predictions remain just as alarmingly correct as they were in 2003, her solution has gotten much bolder.

On Feb. 19, Warren unveiled her “Universal Child Care and Early Learning” proposal. Under her $700 billion plan, the federal government would fund a network of locally run child-care facilities. For poorer and middle-class households (those making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line — a little over $50,000 for a family of four, as of 2018), it would be free. Others would have to pay, with fees on a sliding scale based on income, but no one would be required to spend more than 7 percent of their income on child care. (In the United States, depending where you live, the average cost of infant care ranges from 9 percent to 36 percent of the median family income.) And the program would be paid for with the revenue from her previously proposed “ultra-millionaire tax.”

It’s a proposal she describes as a “big, structural change.” A decade and a half later, the shift makes sense.  

It’s not that Warren’s mushier advice from 2003 was wrong. Professor Warren wondered then about the implications of federal child care on other family needs, and whether government subsidies for child care could disadvantage single-income families and stay-at-home parents — questions that endure today. And as a cautious researcher, it made sense not to endorse a grand solution, even if her assessment of the situation was itself extreme.

But in 2019, there’s a lot to be said for taking a leap.

I’ve written before on the power of idealists to expand the “Overton window” — to widen our sense of the possible when it comes to policy and ideas. While any number of progressive candidates (and even one Ivanka Trump) are willing to shake a fist at the harsh outcomes of our child-care system, more effective is an actual proposal — for candidates and voters to analyze, iterate on and perhaps put into place. A window needs a frame to stay open.

In 2003, Warren opened the window. In 2019, her big solution is the frame — and it has arrived not a moment too soon.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Elizabeth Warren has something Hillary Clinton didn’t

Jennifer Rubin: Elizabeth Warren jumps in first

James Downie: ‘Warren 2020’ is good for the Democrats

Jennifer Rubin: Elizabeth Warren has her act together. Democratic 2020 hopefuls better wake up.

Ed Rogers: Warren personifies Democrats’ 2020 dilemma