The high cost of modern child care and the U.S. government’s refusal to invest the resources other rich countries do in their workforce’s dependents has helped entrench economic inequalities in American society for decades.
Kids born into wealthier families spend their key early childhood years with professional educators, mixing play and learning while their parents earn a living. But lower-income families can’t access those systems, generally opting to leave their kids with family or friends during their own more sporadic, less lucrative shifts.
These two radically different worlds don’t have to exist — as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) ambitious new universal child care plan makes clear.
The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act would fund a gigantic new network of federally funded but locally managed day-care centers, preschools, and other child care facilities. All children would be welcome — and families earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less would pay zero dollars for their kids to participate. Above that earning level, families would pay some share of the cost, but even the wealthiest families would have their fees capped at 7 percent of their income.
The average low-income family currently spends one dollar of every six it earns on child care. By freeing up that 17 percent of the average working-poor family’s earnings for something other than child care, Warren’s plan would likely also generate new economic activity. After those and other knock-on effects, Warren’s proposal would have a net annual cost of about $70 billion, a Moody’s estimate cited in the 2020 White House hopeful’s proposal says.
The wealth tax proposal she unveiled earlier this month would generate four times that much new federal revenue — a fact Warren’s proposal flags in hopes of inoculating voters against the inevitable wave of how-will-you-pay-for-it deficit hysteria from cynical pundits and 2020 competitors. Warren has a simple plan to pay for all the nice things she thinks people should have, and the central component in it can cover her universal child care proposal and still have room for three other similarly-sized social programs.
Warren’s Monday night announcement also framed the plan as fulfilling a promise that’s gone unkept for half a century. The 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act gained bipartisan majorities in each chamber of Congress, only to be vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon.
Terrified of the supposed “family-weakening implications” of making it easier for mothers to work, Nixon and top social policy adviser Pat Buchanan killed legislation that built on temporary World War II-era childcare systems. For the past 48 years, the question of which children receive special educational attention has been determined by the dreaded invisible hand of the market.
State-run child care systems have only eased the pain of those market forces for a slim handful of eligible families since then. The same chronic under-funding that generates huge waitlists for such programs also means that even the lucky few who do get to partake still face median post-subsidy costs of $360 a month.
Various political leaders have tried to fix what Buchanan and Nixon kept broken — including the two most recent occupants of the office Warren is now seeking. Her idea is much grander than theirs, however, both in scale and in its philosophical implications for U.S. social order.
President Barack Obama put a universal pre-K proposal front and center in his second-term agenda. It was a much more modest program than what Warren is suggesting today. Despite having a similar pricetag, Obama’s program promised only that every 4-year-old child would be able to attend pre-K. His idea for improving child care for kids from ages 0 to 3 was just to up the funding that goes to existing Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Warren’s plan borrows some policy mechanics from Obama’s — his plan imagined a national network of professional child-care facilities too, just a smaller one targeted more narrowly to low- and moderate-income families — but rests on more communitarian, all-inclusive thinking about U.S. children across class divides.
President Donald Trump, too, has at times let his spotlight fall on the challenges working families face obtaining child care. But rather than reimagining the nation’s approach to early childhood development of its next generations of citizens, Trump’s plan would just throw tax writeoffs at the problem.
Policy mechanics that use the tax code as an engine without adding a direct public service provision tend to replicate the individualism and inequality-reinforcing tendencies of a capitalist society, where if your parents can’t get you a decent pre-school experience that’s nobody else’s problem. Trump’s childcare ideas would do the same, childhood development policy experts Ajay Chaudry and Taryn Morrissey wrote for CNBC in 2017. The current White House’s preferred approach “would benefit the affluent while ignoring the realities of low- and middle-income families who need help the most,” the two wrote.
The contrast between the Trump’s and Warren’s proposals illuminates the sneakily radical heart of the senator’s idea. An IRS margin-tweak that helps you get reimbursed for your child care costs come tax time — so long as you or your accountant can figure out the paperwork correctly — would do far less to change the social contract between U.S. workers, their government, and the children who both of those constituencies want to see thrive.
A new system, flexibly designed in cooperation between federal advisers and local decisionmakers, available to every single child who needs or wants it, would mark a grand departure from the you’re-on-your-own approach taken to date — and put another nail in the coffin of the Nixon-Buchanan project of using public policy to keep women out of the workforce.