Maybe The Debate Moderators Could Ask About Child Care, Like Just Once

It's a huge issue for working parents and the candidates keep trying to bring it up.

Millions of Americans struggle to find decent, affordable child care every year. But when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to bring up the subject during Thursday’s Democratic debate, in response to a question about education, a moderator cut her off.

“Start with our babies by providing universal child care for every baby age 0 to 5, universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in this country,” Warren said, just getting on a roll when ABC moderator Linsey Davis interrupted. “Thank you, senator,” Davis said.

Davis was just following the rules: Warren’s time for the response had lapsed. But the moment was a perfect metaphor for the attention child care and other work-family issues have gotten in these debates ― or, more accurately, the attention they have not gotten in these debates.

That seems like a problem.

The U.S. is an extreme outlier when it comes to the support it gives to working parents. In the rest of the developed world, national governments make sure parents of newborns get paid time off and, then, if they return to work, that they have access to affordable, quality child care. Adults caring for relatives, including the elderly, also get support. 

The lack of a similar safety net here in the U.S. is as noteworthy as the lack of a truly universal health care system. And yet it hasn’t gotten nearly the same attention from politicians until very recently ― in 2016, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton put forth a plan that would have guaranteed more affordable child care to all Americans, and now in 2020, when several Democratic candidates have staked out similarly ambitious positions.

Conspicuous among them is Warren. She has become famous for her policy agenda but the very first spending program she outlined, back in February, was her child care proposal, which envisioned raising the famously low quality standards of child care and then making sure every working parent could afford it.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to bring up child care during Thursday night's Democratic debate,
Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to bring up child care during Thursday night's Democratic debate, but was cut off.

No family would have to pay more than 7% of its income on child care, under Warren’s plan, and for families with incomes of less than twice the poverty line, or an annual income of about $50,000 in households of four, child care would be free.

That kind of program would represent a massive, revolutionary investment of government money into early childhood. Internal estimates suggested the net cost, taking into account its projected economic benefits, would be $700 billion over 10 years. The new investment would represent something like a fourfold increase in what the federal government spends on child care today, or maybe even more depending on how you do the math.

And Warren isn’t the only one out there talking about these issues. 

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has proposed a national pre-kindergarten program that would look like the one he brought to his city and that experts have hailed as a model. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has done the same, citing the city’s popular new pre-K program that is arguably his signature accomplishment.

De Blasio wasn’t on the stage Thursday night, but Castro was and, tellingly, he mentioned early childhood programs on his own ― during his prepared opening remarks. Former Vice President Joe Biden got in a plug for pre-K during a question about education, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) brought up both child care and paid leave, causes he’s championed for years

“I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on earth not to provide paid family and medical leave,” he said.

The moderators didn’t pick up on any of this, asking not a single question related to either child care or paid leave. And it’s been that way for three debates now, according to Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at think tank New America who focuses on work-family policy. 

“It isn’t like these are fringe issues,” Shabo told HuffPost. “Virtually every working person will need time away from their job at some point to care for a new child or deal with a serious personal or family health issue ... Nearly every working parent is challenged to find quality, affordable child care, and many child care providers cannot themselves afford child care or basic living expenses for their own families because their pay is so low.”

That last part is especially important. Some of the child care proposals envision raising the pay of providers, not simply to improve conditions for kids but to boost incomes of adults who are almost criminally underpaid. The typical worker at a child care center makes less than $11 an hour, as of 2017, which is roughly what parking lot attendants get.

The lack of child care and paid leave has additional economic consequences. With better early childhood programs, low-income kids are more likely to succeed academically and be more successful in the workplace once they become adults, according to a large body of research.

And because the responsibility for caregiving falls disproportionately on women, the inability to find affordable child care ― or get paid time off from work ― ends up holding back the professional advancement of many, reducing not just their family incomes but also economic growth.

There’s been a steady, if underappreciated, progression of states taking action on their own. Connecticut and Oregon both enacted paid leave laws this year. In California, the new budget Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom just signed made its pioneering paid leave law even more generous and dumped a bunch of new money into child care.

And it’s not just the blue states, by the way. Pre-K is up and running in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and has support of Republican leaders in those states.

All of which is to say, early childhood and work-family issues seem ripe for more discussion. And although there’s only so many issues the debates can cover, especially with so many candidates, it’s hard not to think their near-total absence from conversation so far has at least something to do with the fact that, historically, these have been “women’s” issues that the predominantly male political establishment has not taken seriously.

Another factor may be the relative unity among Democrats on the need for the federal government to take a much bigger role in supporting working parents and caregivers. Debates inevitably focus on the most contentious issues and, so far, there are no signs of the kinds of disagreements that exist over health care, for example. But it’s not as if the Democratic proposals are devoid of controversial elements that might matter to voters and that would be worth probing now, early in the campaign.

Is a plan to subsidize child care fair to at-home parents? Should the proposals be even more generous? What about evidence that big child care initiatives in other countries left some kids worse off? Can businesses handle the logistical and financial complications of more workers taking time off? Could stronger support for caregiving actually set back the cause of gender equality, by making it more financially viable for women to stay out of the workforce?

The more thoughtful proponents of bigger investments in child care and paid leave have answers to these questions. Maybe it’s time debate moderators started asking for them.