A few weeks ago, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote a compelling New York Times piece endorsing “day care for all.” Noting that child care is “one of the biggest costs a family faces,” often surpassing even college tuition, Pollitt argued that a lack of affordable child care is a problem on par with challenges that receive far more attention from leading progressives. “So why isn’t it on the front burner of the revitalized left?” she asked.
The question turned out to be prescient. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled her proposal for universal child care in the United States. While other candidates have discussed the need for affordable child care — and it was one of Hillary Clinton’s priorities in 2016 — Warren’s plan is clearly the most ambitious proposal to date. It would establish a network of federally funded, locally run child-care centers across the nation. Enrollment would be completely free for millions of children and affordable for all, with the total cost per family capped at 7 percent of a family’s income, no matter the number of kids. The centers would be staffed by qualified care providers, who would be paid similarly to teachers. Access would be guaranteed, but families with the means to choose other options would be free to do so. And it would be fully paid for with revenue from the wealth tax Warren has called for on households with a net worth greater than $50 million.
Warren’s proposal should spark an overdue and necessary conversation about a problem that leaders in both parties have long neglected. More than half of Americans now live in child care “deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress, including significant majorities of rural and Latino families. Compared with the rest of the world, the United States spends pathetically little on family benefits, ranking second-to-last among developed nations. “This dearth of family benefits leads to two cruel outcomes,” writes Matt Bruenig, whose People’s Policy Project recently published its own set of ideas for addressing the child-care crisis. “It denies many people the ability to have the families that they want and inflicts financial ruin on many of those who go through with parenthood despite the lack of social support.”
Women especially suffer the consequences of this neglect, often sacrificing their careers and other opportunities to pick up the slack. Yet while it is fitting that universal child care would gain traction at a time when women are playing an increasingly vital role in the national debate, Warren’s proposal would not only improve the lives of women or even parents. Its impact would also ripple outward, benefiting all Americans. In fact, Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi estimates that Warren’s plan would generate twice as much growth per year over a decade as Trump’s corporate tax cut at less than half the cost — and that’s if the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts were paid for, which of course they were not. So, in addition to proposing good family policy, Warren is offering a boost to the economy that deserves to be covered and debated accordingly.
Predictably, Warren’s idea has been lambasted on the right as “socialism” and even as a sinister ploy to increase immigration. But the United States has experimented with universal child care before with great success. In the 1940s, when millions of women joined the workforce to support the war effort, the government temporarily offered subsidized child care through a law known as the Lanham Act. The program was hugely popular and, studies later showed, effective. Not only did it empower more women to work, but also the children who participated went on to see increased high school and college graduation rates, better employment prospects and higher earnings. Years later, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to establish a national child-care system, but President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, warning that it would create “a new army of bureaucrats” and condemning its “family-weakening implications.”
“I think when we ran the sword through [child care] in ’71,” Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan boasted in 2014, “it may have killed it for more than half a century.” Now that it’s alive again as a serious policy goal, let’s fight for universal child care. It’s good for the economy, it’s consistent with our values, and its time has come.