The question of how to support Americans who are juggling caring for their families with the demands of paid work is getting more airtime in this presidential contest than any in history.
The politics of these issues, however, can be surprising. Candidates who have taken more moderate stances on other topics like Medicare for All, such as Pete Buttigieg, have come out with bold proposals on affordable child care and paid family leave. The proposals made by the more left-leaning candidates, meanwhile, are in some cases less ambitious.
The United States can barely be said to have a child care “system.” So advocates are working to imagine what a robust one would look like and using that framework to assess what the presidential candidates have come up with. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), along with over two dozen other organizations, just backed such a rubric. An adequate child care system has four main planks: quality, access, affordability, and fair treatment for the provider workforce. That means designing nurturing, safe environments based on what we know is best for children’s development. Part of ensuring high-quality care is also ensuring that the people providing it are paid well and have opportunities for professional development, advancement, and higher pay.
But high-quality care means little if parents can’t afford it, nor if they can’t access it. Putting an infant in child care can cost families tens of thousands of dollars a year. Some parents may have nontraditional work schedules and struggle to find care at odd hours. In many places across the country, they can’t even find an open slot.
That all leads to one final checkbox on the rubric: “The common denominator,” said Melissa Boteach, NWLC’s vice president for income security and child care/early learning, “is money. You can’t seriously be thought to have a child care plan that addresses these principles unless you’re willing to make an investment.”
And for the first time ever, Democratic candidates are having a serious, substantive debate about how best to make that investment. Many proposals are big and bold. “A lot of them are trying to tackle the size and scope of the issue,” said Catherine White, director of child care and early learning at the NWLC.
Elizabeth Warren has led the pack with her groundbreaking call for a universal child care program. In February, the candidate released a plan to have the federal government partner with local governments and organizations to create a network of locally run child care programs “so that every family, regardless of their income or employment, can access high-quality, affordable child care options for their children from birth to school entry,” as her brief on the plan describes it. Care would be free to those earning under 200 percent of the federal poverty line—about $50,000 a year for a family of four—and families who make more would pay a sliding-scale fee that came to no more than 7 percent of their income. The centers would have to meet current quality standards for Head Start and the military’s child care network. They would also have to compensate child care workers comparably with public school teachers.
For Chris Herbst, an associate professor at Arizona State University who studies child care, Warren “tackles the two problems” he’s most concerned with: not just whether care is affordable for parents, but also whether the affordability is coupled with higher quality. Increasing one without the other can often exacerbate the unaddressed problem.
Warren’s plan has “really strong cost reduction,” he said. It also addresses quality by essentially creating a public option. “It’s fully public,” he noted. “She wants to build buildings, she wants to hire staff and teachers and pay those teachers on the K-12 education pay scale, hold the…staff to a very high standard around experience and training and education.” That public option would not only offer American parents a solid choice but also force existing programs—fewer than 10 percent of which were found to be high-quality in 2006—to raise their standards in order to compete.
Running right behind her, despite their differences over free college and Medicare for All, is Pete Buttigieg. He’s pledged $700 billion to “ensure universal, affordable full-day early child care and pre-K for children from infancy to age 5,” according to his website. He, too, would make care free for “those most in need” and cap costs at 7 percent of income for those earning more, and his plan includes $2 billion for wage increases and professional development for the early childhood workforce.
“From a subsidy standpoint, it sounds pretty similar to Elizabeth Warren’s plan,” Herbst said. The main difference seems to be how the two candidates go about increasing quality in the system. Buttigieg’s website vows that he will give families “exceptional freedom of choice by ensuring they can afford the high-quality early learning option that’s best for them,” including existing for-profit and home-based centers. How that will raise standards is not clear. “Even though he says he’s going to invest in universal, high-quality care, I don’t know what his plans are for high quality,” Herbst said.
A number of other candidates support the idea of universal child care, at least in theory. Amy Klobuchar is a sponsor of the Childcare for Working Families Act, as were Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Eric Swalwell before they dropped out, a bill whose sponsors have characterized as providing “ChildCare4All.” The act would ensure that no family earning less than 150 percent of their state’s median income would pay more than 7 percent of its income on care—a boon to lower-income families, but not an actually universal program, as it would leave out anyone earning above that threshold.
And while the plan makes big promises on ensuring care is more affordable for parents, it has less to say about quality. It would provide incentives and funding to states so they could create high-quality preschool programs and increase training and pay for child care providers, but doesn’t go further. “It sounds really good on the subsidy side but less so on the quality side,” Herbst said.
For his part, Bernie Sanders has long said he supports universal child care, although has yet to release a plan for it as a presidential candidate.
International peers have beaten us to the universal child care game. The Canadian province of Quebec was one of the first to implement a universal child care system in 1996. The low-cost care has led to a boom in women joining the paid workforce, but research suggests that variation in quality—thanks, in part, to a shortage of public spaces and the inclusion of private providers—may have a negative impact on children’s development. Quebec’s experience hammers home the importance of addressing all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Other countries, such as Sweden and France, also have universal systems that keep costs low and provide publicly run options.
Other presidential candidates have talked about addressing only parts of the interconnected problems that parents face. Michael Bennet, for example, as well as Kirsten Gillibrand, Seth Moulton, and Marianne Williamson before they dropped out, have gotten behind increasing tax credits for parents to help cover the cost of care.
“Tax credits can be supplemental in terms of helping families with co-pays [and] to offset costs,” Boteach said. But they won’t address the pressing need for more child care spaces or to raise pay and benefit standards for the provider workforce. “If that is seen as a comprehensive or primary solution, we’re missing many other legs of the stool,” she said.
It also won’t get parents the money when they need it. Tax refunds, after all, come once a year; child care costs are monthly, if not weekly. “The problem is that families don’t have the money up front to pay for child care,” Herbst noted. But with the tax code as the mechanism, “You get the refund after you spent the money.”
The other problem with tax credits is that they tend to be most useful for higher-income families who owe a lot in taxes. For lower-income ones, unless the credit is refundable, it won’t offer them any relief.
Andrew Yang has touted his plan to give every American a $1,000 per month universal basic income as a way to help cover the price of child care. But in many parts of the country, child care costs double that. And as with tax credits, his solution would only address price, not quality. “Parents will inevitably take their subsidy to pay for lower quality care,” Herbst said, “and I’m not a big fan of rewarding providers for producing low- to mediocre-quality care.” It gives them no incentive to improve.
Then there are candidates who have gotten behind universal preschool without offering plans specifically for child care below age 3. That’s the kind of idea backed by Yang and Cory Booker, and championed by Julián Castro before he dropped out, and what Joe Biden has supported in the past. It may be an easier political pill to swallow—pre-K tends to be associated with children’s education, whereas child care gets mired in controversy over working mothers and changing family structures. But while it would obviously be enormously helpful to parents of older children, universal preschool does nothing for the critical early years.
What’s clear, however, is that the idea that the government should provide help to parents desperate to afford child care has taken root in the current presidential race in a way not seen before. Hillary Clinton talked about preschool and child care while running for president in 2016, pledging that under her administration, no family would pay more than 10 percent of its income on child care and that she would increase pay for providers while calling for national, universal preschool. It was a start, but didn’t address all the weaknesses in our current system. Child care wasn’t a central part of Barack Obama’s two campaigns for president, even if he did address some aspects of the issue in office by pushing for universal preschool and helping raise federal funding for child care.
This time around, the issue is front and center. “How many people are talking about it, how many people have plans—this is very unprecedented,” White said. “It shows how the issue is breaking through in the national consciousness. We’re starting to see child care as a public good, a national priority we need to invest in.”
“The discourse around child care is so different now compared to, certainly a decade ago, but even just four years ago,” Herbst agreed. “The debate is much more sophisticated. There’s actually some competition over policy ideas.”
There is also plenty of discussion about how to provide the American workforce time away from work to deal with obligations at home in the form of paid family leave. The family leave guaranteed under federal law currently is 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and only eight states and Washington, DC, have enacted paid programs. Less than 20 percent of the workforce gets paid leave at work. Candidates are finally taking that on. “Unlike prior years where it was almost a stretch and took some nudging to get the candidates to [back] 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, that was the starting point this time,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow on paid leave policy and strategy at New America’s Better Life Lab. “Virtually every candidate has a position on paid leave.” Indeed, a recent candidate survey conducted by paid family leave advocacy organization PL+US found that only Republicans—Joe Walsh and Bill Weld—failed to include paid family leave in their campaigns. All the Democrats have talked about it in one way or the other.
In a report it put together with the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality ahead of the survey, PL+US found that in order to adequately support the health and development of new parents, new children, and others who need care while ensuring financial security, paid leave has to cover a broad range of workers and a similarly broad range of needs for leave, protect people’s jobs while they’re away from work, give workers enough pay that they can afford to take it, allow for intermittent or incremental leave taking, use the social insurance program model to pool risk, and offer the right duration of time. According to the research PL+US and Georgetown surveyed, that means Americans need a guarantee of six months of leave at 80 to 100 percent of their typical pay, plus expansive definitions of caregiving and family members. (I have consulted for PL+US but was not involved in this report or their survey of presidential candidates.)
Those recommendations go beyond the paid family leave bill that has repeatedly been introduced in Congress, the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would guarantee 12 weeks of leave at 66 percent of pay up to a cap. They are also closer to the international norm. Nearly three quarters of developed countries guarantee six months of paid parental leave, while more than two-thirds ensure at least 80 percent of pay.
“Too often in Congress you get stuck on the discussion of what can pass,” explained Andrea Zuniga, legislative director and counsel at PL+US. “We should be thinking about what families need.”
PL+US used these recommendations as a baseline to survey presidential candidates about their stances on paid family leave. When they responded, they didn’t just tick boxes. “A lot of candidates, in addition to circling ‘yes,’ added details and shared stories about why it’s important for caregiving, what it means for them,” said Zuniga.
And many have decided to go beyond the baseline of backing the FAMILY Act. Kamala Harris, who left the race in early December, went the furthest. Hers was “the boldest and most visionary aspiration,” Shabo said. Harris proposed guaranteeing six months of leave with full wages paid to low-income workers, as well as an expansive view of the reasons workers can take leave and who they can take it for—including not just siblings and grandparents but “chosen family”—plus job protection when they do.
Bennet, Booker, Sanders, and Tom Steyer also endorsed six months of leave and full wage replacement for low-wage workers when asked by PL+US, although none have actually put forward such a plan or mentioned it on their websites.
Some have tackled only a small slice of the problem. Yang has proposed just paid parental leave, yet of those who take unpaid leave through the FAMILY Act, only a quarter are doing so to care for a newborn; everyone else needs time off to recover from an injury or illness or to take care of a family member. And while many candidates have put a mention of paid family leave on their websites, that doesn’t mean they’ve released detailed plans. “I’d love to see more campaigns lead with proposals,” Zuniga said. “I want to see who’s going to include it in their campaign ads and their door knockers.”
The issue also splits the field in unexpected ways. Warren, who has proposed some of the most radical plans for a number of other issues, only earned a C grade on PL+US’s scorecard. She’s so far backed just the 12 weeks of partial pay in the FAMILY Act and hasn’t indicated passing it would be on her agenda for the first 100 days. “What’s the joke, Warren has a plan for everything?” Zuniga said. “We’re looking forward to that next plan to be…her plan for paid family and medical leave.”
But despite these differences, there is still wide agreement on the issue. Paid family leave “went from being shiny and cutting edge in 2016,” Shabo said, to “a convergence among Democrats about what the baseline should be.” The conversation around leave in 2008 focused on guaranteeing paid sick leave for American workers; paid family leave, when it was talked about, was something candidates wanted to prod along by giving grants to states and by encouraging private employers, not by tackling directly through a new federal program. A national program, this time around, is no longer a “progressive pipe dream,” Shabo said.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” she added. “Even more than before, this seems like a question of when and not if.” Given the general consensus among Democratic candidates that the government should enact a new paid leave program, Zuniga is hopeful it might get done quickly if one of them wins the White House. It could be “something that Congress and the White House would include as a 100 day priority,” she said.
Another important change from past election cycles: These issues are now rarely talked about in the narrow silo of “women’s issues.” Klobuchar included paid family leave in her plan for seniors. Castro and Sanders included it in their working families planks, while Williamson mentioned it in the section of her campaign website about the economy. Harris introduced her plan in her children’s agenda. Buttigieg has touched on it in his rural plan. Booker includes it in his health care platform. Warren tied it into her plan for women of color as well as green manufacturing. “This is not something that you put on your women’s page only,” Zuniga noted. Child care has similarly been framed differently. Buttigieg’s universal child care proposal is part of his education arm. Warren’s is a plank in her suite of ideas that she says will “rebuild the middle class.”
As these issues have been freed from the pink ghetto, they’ve also become a litmus test for Democratic candidates. They are a “need to have,” not a “nice to have,” issue on an issues page.
“If you’re going to be a credible Democratic candidate, you have to have a paid leave and child care plan,” Herbst said. “That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.”