Who's minding the kids? Warren pushes universal childcare

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

Presidential elections are decided by many things: media exposure, financial backing, personal chemistry, timing and luck. Policy positions often are just a way of signaling where a candidate stands on the political spectrum. But 2020 is shaping up to be different, the most ideas-driven election in recent American history. On the Democratic side, a robust debate about inequality has given rise to ambitious proposals to redress the imbalance in Americans’ economic situation. Candidates are churning out positions on banking regulation, antitrust law and the future effects of artificial intelligence. The Green New Deal is spurring a debate on the crucial issue of climate change, which could also play a role in a possible Republican challenge to Donald Trump.

Yahoo News will be examining these and other policy questions in “The Ideas Election” — a series of articles on how candidates are defining and addressing the most important issues facing the United States as it prepares to enter a new decade.

Childcare options in the United States are expensive. In more than half the states in the country, a year of daycare costs more than a year of in-state college tuition, according to a study by New America published in 2016. An estimated 12 million children under the age of 5 are in need of such care, but at an annual cost ranging from $6,615 in Arizona to $19,805 in Washington, D.C., it has become unaffordable for 7 in 10 American families. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises that childcare should be no more than 10 percent of a family’s budget, which would require an income of $175,000 to pay the average national cost for two children. Poor families are likely to make do with cheap, unregulated, low-quality options.

There are consequences to the crisis. Americans cite the cost of childcare as the reason they don’t have more (or any) children, and it is also the primary reason women drop out of the workforce. Low-quality childcare also puts low-income children at a permanent disadvantage in life. The years before kindergarten are when the architecture of the brain develops, and children who do not receive adequate care and stimulation at that age will never catch up.

In the face of a genuine national emergency, World War II, the U.S. government did something it never did before or since: create a national network to care for the children of women who worked in defense plants. The Defense Housing and Community Facilities and Services Act of 1940 funded childcare centers in communities with defense industries, charging as little as the current equivalent of $10 a day, and the proportion of women in the workforce rose from 28 percent to 37 percent by 1945.

When the war ended, more than half of that influx of women went back home and the subsidies ceased. The idea lay dormant until 1971, when the Comprehensive Child Development Act was passed with support from both parties in Congress. It would have funded a network of childcare centers and instituted a sliding-scale payment plan. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Walter Mondale, saw it as a first step toward a universal system.

President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, however, describing it as a socialist-inspired threat to the traditional family, composed of a father who worked and a mother who stayed at home.

There have been a few more targeted attempts to provide childcare to small segments of the country  — Head Start, for families with incomes below the federal poverty line, mostly serves infants and toddlers who are homeless or in foster care, and a Department of Defense program enrolls 200,000 children of service members. A few local and state governments have developed plans for government-funded pre-K, which did increase the percentage of mothers entering the workforce in those places.

Economists note that access to high-quality daycare for children pays for itself in social benefits, and argue that there is an economic loss to the country when that care is not available. James Heckman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work showing that for every dollar spent on good childcare there is a rate of return between $7 and $12 to society over the lifetime of each child, because children in those programs complete more years of school, earn more, are healthier and commit fewer crimes.

Other nations have long had more comprehensive and subsidized systems of childcare. In Scandinavia, parents receive a year of paid parental leave from their jobs, and then have access to state-supported childcare until their children enter school. Other developed countries are less generous, but in most, childcare is more accessible and cheaper than in the U.S.

But few serious steps have been taken toward a national system of childcare in the U.S. since Nixon killed the idea in 1971.

Soon after declaring herself a Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts unveiled what she has named the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Plan. It would include a national network of childcare facilities for children from birth until the start of kindergarten, which would be subsidized and regulated by the government, and paid for by families on a sliding scale that would cap at 7 percent of income regardless of how many children received care.

In an essay on the website Medium, Warren said the roots of her plan were personal, dating back to her years raising young children and teaching law in Houston. One day the babysitter quit, and every option she tried over the next few months fell apart. Her breaking point, she wrote, was the day she “picked up Alex from daycare and found that he had been left in a dirty diaper for who knows how long.

“I was upset with the daycare,” she continued, “but, more than anything, upset with myself for failing my baby.”

Ready to quit her job, she called her 78-year-old Aunt Bee, who lived in Oklahoma, and sobbed out the story. “I can’t get there tomorrow, but I can come on Thursday,” her aunt responded, arriving two days later and staying for 16 years. 

Warren’s proposal would build on existing entities — daycare providers, preschools, in-home babysitters — and also work with local governments, nonprofits, school districts and faith-based organizations, among others, to create more. Workers at these centers “would be doing the educational work that teachers do,” Warren wrote, “so they will be paid like comparable public school teachers.” Currently the national average for daycare workers is a third that of teachers, meaning the plan would result in a raise for nearly 1 million providers.

The plan would cost an estimated $700 billion over the next 10 years. Warren says that money would come from an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” on families with a net worth over $50 million, which she has also proposed and which she estimates would generate $2.75 trillion over that same decade.

“In the wealthiest country on the planet,” Warren wrote, “access to affordable and high-quality child care and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich.”

The reaction from academics to Warren’s plan was immediate, voluminous — and contradictory. Chris Herbst, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Arizona, posted a 17-tweet-long thread calling it “a thoughtful and ambitious proposal” that “represents the standard for all child care proposals henceforth. As legislation, it would be a major breakthrough for American families.”

In contrast, Amitabh Chandra, a health care economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, spent most of a day leading an argument on Twitter that criticized the efficacy of one similar plan. “I wish Elizabeth Warren had paid more attention to research on universal childcare before proposing what she has: the evidence on the effects of universal childcare in Quebec is devastating: worse health for kids, more behavioral problems, worse parenting.”

Other economists chimed in, some agreeing, others offering alternate studies showing benefits of similar plans and a few pointing out that the Quebec study focused only on two-parent families and that the children of single parents greatly benefited from the Quebec plan.

But the fate of the plan probably won’t be decided by its hypothesized economic and social benefits (or downsides) but by how the 2020 election shakes out, for Warren and for Congress. As the Democratic candidates compete for the newly awakened millennial voters, now confronting the anxiety-provoking decision about starting a family, a proposal such as Warren’s could find traction.

Whatever the political landscape, there will be pushback from the right. In an essay in the Atlantic, Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review, wrote that in its zeal to help women enter or stay in the workplace, the plan would be an economic disincentive to those women who would “ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family.” It is also, at its base, socialism, he warned, a word that has been given new political heft in the past few years as some candidates and politicians — Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — have embraced it while others, from Donald Trump on down, have described it as a creeping threat.

“Leftists like Warren love to promise free things paid for by others, but then walk away when the quality turns out to be poor or just plain awful,” said an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily. “This is the essence of socialist thinking, and also the way it gets voters to keep falling for socialists’ impossible promises of heaven on earth.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration by Yahoo News; photos: AP (2), Getty Images

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