Universal Child Care: It means different things to different candidates

A resolution on child care passed at DSA’s national convention in August 2019. It prioritized the fight for guaranteed paid parental leave and public universal child care and preschool and specified that no candidate would receive a national endorsement who did not back these policies. As the spotlight narrows on the Democratic presidential hopefuls polling above 1% at the time of this writing—Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker—it’s important to know where the candidates stand on these crucial policies.

Policy highlights

Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders, who has been endorsed by DSA, supports paid parental leave, public universal child care, and public universal pre-K. However, the remaining candidates’ platforms vary.

All support some version of paid parental leave, which is often contained in broader legislative proposals covering paid family and medical leave. Sanders, Booker, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar endorsed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro’s (D-CT) 2019 FAMILY Act, which provides parents and caregivers 12 weeks of paid leave at 66% of their wages.

Harris also supports the FAMILY Act, but recently revealed a more ambitious paid parental leave plan as part of her Children’s Agenda. It proposes six months of paid family and medical leave, guaranteed to all workers. Only Yang has said he supports more leave—six months for single parents and nine if shared between two parents—though his proposal lacks details.

More comprehensive, Harris’s Children’s Agenda also includes expanded pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. The policy claims to provide “universal access” but cites support for the Child Care for Working Families Act of 2019, which suggests incentives and funding for states to provide high-quality daytime preschool programs for three- and four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income households. Families earning under 150% of the state median income wouldn’t pay more than 7% percent of their income for child care, and families under 75% of the state median wouldn’t pay at all.

As the name implies, the Child Care for Working Families Act also aims to expand available child care for infants and toddlers from birth to age three using a similar mechanism. Incentives and funding would be given to states to provide child care programs for this age group, though at a higher matching rate, because younger children require higher staffing ratios. Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren are co-sponsors of the legislation.

Expanding pre-K is also generally popular, even among some of the least progressive candidates. Biden, for instance, says that he supports a universal pre-K program that is free for all.

Surprisingly, Warren’s pre-K program proposal is not free for all. Instead, it is part of a child care program for children from birth to age five outlined in her 2019 Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act. Like the Child Care for Working Families Act, the bill focuses on expanding the availability of child care and early education and making it more affordable for lower income families. It also aims to address the lack of child care options in many areas by calling for the federal government to partner with local entities to “create a network of child care options for families, including child care centers and smaller family daycare homes.” Booker was a cosponsor of the bill.

Klobuchar has also introduced legislation to address the shortage of affordable, quality child care. The Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act of 2019 suggests offering grants to expand the number of child care providers in “child care deserts” and increase education, training, and retention of the child care workforce.

Beyond campaign rhetoric

Lack of paid parental leave and public universal child care and preschool creates a significant burden for millions in the United States, and any improvements to the current inadequate system should be encouraged. However, it is still fair to note that although some candidates have come out with robust policies or introduced legislation—and thus made the issues central to their presidential campaigns—others have barely given them a sentence on their campaign websites.

This distinction helps to reveal which candidates are truly committed. We should also consider each candidate’s overall platform when we assess their campaign rhetoric. For example, Yang’s proposed six months of paid leave for single parents would be wonderful, but since he doesn’t provide a detailed plan and puts most of his energy into promoting a “universal basic income” that wouldn’t cover the average annual cost of infant care in the United States, it seems likely that his overall advocacy for parents and child care workers would be limited.   

When more detailed policies or legislation are included, it is still important to consider their scope. Providing 12 weeks of partially paid leave is a vast improvement over a few weeks of unpaid leave, but we, as socialists, support more time off at full pay. Many of the candidates’ child care and preschool proposals are not universal, but focus on providing more children from low- and moderate- income households access to affordable options. Such an approach addresses the most immediate need, but we can still argue for fully funded public universal child care and preschool and improvements to the working conditions of domestic, child care, and early education workers.

At first glance, Sanders appears to fall into the category of candidates who may not be truly committed because they lack detailed policies behind their positions. However, because he is an avowed socialist, we know that they fit into his broader political platform.

Still, it is important for Sanders to develop program details. While he has made labor a central focus of his campaign—and so both directly and indirectly focuses on improving the lives of working parents and domestic and child care workers—providing more detailed policies on paid parental leave, public universal child care, and public universal pre-K is necessary. He has made it clear that, unlike other candidates, he intends his programs to be truly universal and not means tested. We must pressure him to advance that position with clear policies on these imperative issues.