With Bernie Sanders’s unveiling of his Medicare for All universal health-care plan, there seems to be building momentum to reshape our social-welfare system in Washington, Trump be damned. So maybe now it’s time for another kind of care that’s eating up our family budgets: preschool. Progressive lawmakers have presented a straightforward policy fix for this desperate are of need: ensuring that no family is priced out of the childcare that they need to raise a healthy family.
Working families across the country are suffering from a childcare market that is both broken and broke: The cost of care is impossibly high, yet childcare workers earn poverty wages, and many communities lack quality programs.
Despite a growing recognition that early education is crucial for children’s social and cognitive development, the contradictory knot of prohibitive costs, lagging wages, and under-resourced classrooms demands a government-led intervention to provide equity for the low-income families, teachers, and mothers who carry disproportionate care-giving burdens.
The “Childcare for Working Families” legislation put forward by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Bobby Scott offers subsidies determined by a sliding-scale scheme, based on a state’s cost of living: No family making up to 50 percent above the median income—roughly $100,000—would have to pay more than 7 percent of its household income for childcare. For families earning up to 75 percent of the state’s median income, childcare would be free. Even families left with a copay would gain a huge discount, since daycare center programs in high-cost areas can swallow 40 to 80 percent of a typical household’s income (sometimes exceeding monthly rent or public-college tuition in tight markets like Washington, DC’s). Funds could be used to expand existing statewide preschool programs or, in states lacking a central program, new childcare programs for infants through pre-kindergarten.
The bill lays out an ambitious cost estimate, providing tens of billions a year in flexible grants to states. It will be a heavy lift in a Congress with welfare cuts on its mind. But despite the plan’s costs, it ultimately offers roughly 26 million families and their communities a massive bargain, by ensuring that children’s daycare fees don’t bankrupt working moms and teaching preschool won’t put teachers on food stamps.
Advocates say the initiative was rolled out with an upfront cost projection in order to realistically frame the debate. According to Julie Kashen, policy director with the advocacy group Make it Work, which campaigns for a national caregiving program, by broaching the spending question upfront, “this bill calls for a significant public investment in the core principles” of the plan: simultaneously tackling affordability, labor, and quality.
By contrast, the current childcare subsidy program for poor families, based on the atrophied federal welfare system, is quietly withering. Eroding funding has led to under-resourced programs that serve just 15 percent of eligible children; a growing majority of low-income parents strain to pay too much for daycare just to go out and work too hard for too little.
To break this painful cycle, the proposal lays out standards for both the workforce and program quality, requiring that providers adhere to research-based teaching methods and academic standards (which include barring expulsions and punitive tactics). On the workforce side, teachers would be entitled to a living wage, with some protections for collective bargaining and representation.
Daunting price tag aside, the plan banks on the universal appeal of having a streamlined nationwide subsidy system for comprehensive childcare. A long-overdue fair wage for early-childhood educators would help stabilize the workforce and combat high turnover rates, while ensuring a positive career path for teachers who are currently earning just about $10 an hour. Ensuring that every family has affordable care would help standardize quality across different communities in a diverse range of school-, community-, and home-based programs. Parents, especially working mothers, would have a reliable service that would enable them to work consistently full-time over the course of their child’s early years. And for the next generation, the plan would provide a comprehensive standard for early education to bring kids from toddler care to grade school, yielding educational and social benefits through adolescence and adulthood.
Women, immigrants, and people of color are over-represented in the preschool workforce, so they have a special stake in reform, particularly as many, ironically, can’t even afford adequate care for their own families.
The Fight for $15 movement has mobilized childcare workers around a national funding reform as a pathway to protecting and professionalizing the workforce. Connecticut-based childcare worker and Fight for $15 activist Ingrid Henlon, who says her wages as are so low she’s had to take on an extra job to scrape by, hailed the new bill: “Families cannot afford the care they need and child care teachers are struggling to afford the necessities for their own families…. By investing in child care, parents can get to work…and teachers can take care of their own families.”
Though tight-fisted conservatives now control Washington, both parties have seized on childcare as a moral and economic issue. Trump touted childcare as part of his campaign platform, and his daughter turned pseudo-feminist political adviser Ivanka has since continued campaigning for the administration’s bare-bones tax-credit plan for childcare subsidizes. Based on tax breaks targeted at affluent households, Ivanka’s plan would give an estimated two-thirds of its benefits to families earning more than $100,000—a group that already vastly outspends the poorest families on “child enrichment” activities. Critical economic analyses have shown that such a limited annual bonus would exclude the highest-need households and fail to provide the consistent financing needed to sustain parents in the long term.
Murray and Scott’s proposals, while requiring larger government outlays, provide a more detailed blueprint for rationalizing the cost of care while ensuring quality programs and teachers. And though the specific offsets are not spelled out in the legislation—presumably more taxes—Kashen says the guiding premise is “ensuring the resources are available to make high-quality childcare affordable and available,” in contrast to the hidden, and even more burdensome, costs strangling individual households today. Under the status quo, she observes, “now we are paying for child care. We are paying for child care with widening inequality.”
Years of skyrocketing fees and shrinking resources prove there’s no way to nurture our youngest citizens on the cheap. Families across the political and economic spectrum now realize that the only way to handle the challenge of raising the next generation is to start early.