In America, the majority of working people who have children have two options: leave the workforce for a period of time or pay for child care. In 33 states, day care costs more than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. Even at a wage of $15 an hour (to say nothing of the federal minimum wage of $7.25), child care is still out of reach for many workers, especially those who work non-traditional schedules, when centers are typically closed or require special arrangements with additional costs. The high cost is compounded in areas with years-long waiting lists and fees to reserve spots with no guarantees. A recent report found that 42 percent of U.S. children under five live in areas where there is an insufficient supply of child care centers, and only 8 percent of existing centers nationwide serve parents who need them nights or weekends.
Of course, working parents have another option to avoid the burden of day care—leave the workforce to care for their children. That’s a dubious “choice” in our capitalist system, where many households already require dual and supplemented incomes just to get by. For many, the loss of wages is not a viable choice at all. Today, more men are stay-at-home dads than ever before, but the burden of child care still predominantly falls on women, both socially and biologically. This is especially true for women in low-wage and non-white collar jobs, which seldom offer flexible schedules or family leave of any kind.
In addition to the economic considerations, there is more research than ever about early childhood development that makes the case that children benefit enormously from socialization and skill-building in high-quality day care early on and enjoy academic and social advantages by attending preschool. Forty-three states already offer some kind of publicly funded preschool. A free-at-use universal federal day care and preschool program is not just a necessary demand, but a popular and possible one.
Struggling parents today may be surprised to learn that Congress actually passed legislation to create universal day care almost 50 years ago. In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act was introduced, which promised to create a network of federally subsidized day care centers providing quality education, nutrition, and medical services. The bill allowed children under a set household income to attend for free, with a sliding scale for others. Its sponsor, Walter Mondale, saw it as a first step toward truly universal child care, saying he wanted “to avoid typing it as a poor person’s program.”
With more women entering the workforce, the bill easily found widespread public support. So it was surprising, to say the least, when shortly after the passage of the bill President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan led the opposition by stoking anti-communist fears and pushing neoliberal priorities of privatization, austerity, and decreased government regulation, claiming the bill would lead to “fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family weakening.” Worse, despite working-class demand, he declared that “no immediate need has been demonstrated for these centers.” The real aim of these attacks had nothing to do with protecting kids and everything to do with protecting ruling-class interests, as evidenced by stagnating wages, welfare cuts, and false promises of trickle-down economics that meant more families would need both parents working to make ends meet.
Additionally, we can’t talk about child care without talking about child care workers, who are overwhelmingly low-wage-earning women of color. Because the nature of this work is usually isolated, unregulated, devalued, and highly gendered, the potential for exploitation is especially high. Domestic workers, including nannies and other such child care providers, have long been excluded from U.S. labor laws—left out of the National Labor Relations Act (which protects workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively) in 1935 and The Fair Standards Labor Act of 1938 (which gave workers a right to overtime pay). Without federal labor protections, some domestic workers have won their rights at the state and city level, but until all are included, it is not enough. A recent study found that in California more than half of all child care workers make wages too low to live on. And we can’t talk about preschool without talking about teachers, whose strikes across the country have shown the power and potential of working-class collective action.
Workers in these industries are our allies, and DSA should prioritize both organizing and supporting them and the working-class families that need to use their services. The first action DSA chapters can take is to assess the needs of those who use and work in child care services and early childhood education in their areas and map out goals, next steps, and timelines for actions. Anything that raises consciousness is a good start, including canvassing, contacting elected officials, and direct action. You may want to collaborate with socialist feminist, labor, or electoral working groups if your chapter has them. As socialists, we should be focused on exploited industry workers and the working-class parents most affected by a lack of universal child care services, pushing together for reforms that benefit parents and workers alike.
Concrete, immediate actions that chapters can organize around could include urging their state legislature or city council to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Seattle recently passed a bill that will protect domestic workers’ rights to breaks and a minimum wage regardless of contract type or employment status, and the city engaged with workers, employers, and government and community stakeholders to create a board to set and enforce locally informed standards for employment, as well as a reporting process for violations and abuse.
The fight for universal child care and preschool can also easily be incorporated into DSA’s existing demands. Preschool is a natural complement to the education goals set by YDSA’s College for All, and child care should form part of our commitment to reproductive justice. On an internal level, chapters should assess member needs and offer child care or child watch during meetings, as well as hold events that are friendly to all ages in order to ensure that our spaces are welcoming and comradely.
It’s critical to organize around programs with broad appeal, because that’s how we build the mass movement we need to effectively challenge capital. Universal child care and preschool programs will drastically improve the lives of the working class, de-commodify basic needs, and raise class consciousness. Mothers and child care workers fighting for mutual self-interest will cross lines of class and privilege. Just as separating health insurance from employment through Medicare for All would lead to greater worker freedom and labor militancy, free, quality day care and early childhood education would mean working parents have more options in the workplace, the home, and in their precious free time—not to mention the many other direct benefits to children, families, and communities.