The 2020 Democratic primary has been defined by a number of litmus tests. Many of the candidates in the progressive wing of the party, including Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and others have been pushed to prove their progressive merits by stating their support for key progressive policies or process measures. Which policies constitute those litmus tests is important because they offer a signal about which issues Democrats will prioritize if they retake power in 2020. As of this writing, they are in support for some form of “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal — the “superstar” policies. Different candidates are trying to add what they see as their unique contribution to that list. Booker introduced a baby bonds bill and Harris wants to expand the earned income tax credit through her LIFT the Middle Class Act. These candidates are trying to elevate the specific policy area they have expertise in to the level of “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal. The policy most deserving of being promoted to superstar status is Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for universal child care and affordable preschool.
Warren’s plan guarantees that every American making less than approximately twice the poverty line will be able to send their child to government-sponsored day care and preschool for free. Families making more than that amount would pay for the service on a sliding scale tied to income, maxing out at 7 percent for the wealthiest. Warren’s proposal is important and timely because child care costs are high and rising — the median annual price is $8,320, more than half the cost of in-state tuition at the University of Michigan — and takes up between, according to some estimates, 9 and 36 percent of annual household income. Warren’s plan would also establish quality standards that all programs receiving government support would have to meet to address the poor state of preschools in the United States right now. To meet that plan, Warren proposes paying daycare and preschool instructors more like the teachers they are.
The proposal is also important because the United States lags behind other countries in child care and preschool attendance. According to a 2015 report, the United States ranks 31st in 3-year-old enrollment among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 36 mostly rich countries. The United States needs real and dramatic early childhood education reform.
Democratic candidates are supportive of expansions of early childhood education, but besides Warren, none has supported making child care universal. All the other senators running for president have signed onto a long-running bill to double the number of children eligible for subsidized child care, but stop short of universality.
Every Democratic 2020 candidate should pledge to fight for Warren’s plan or some expansion of child care and preschool if elected, but they have not felt the need to. Voters and the media have not considered universal child care a priority for progressive candidates for president, but they should.
One reason Warren’s policy has not achieved superstar status is because the research seems to show that early childhood education is not actually helpful for students. However, this line of research takes too narrow an approach. Early child education proponents cite that academic differences between children who participated in programs and those who did not are negligible as early as first grade. But this line of research is fundamentally flawed because it does not fully consider the long-term impacts of these programs on families or students. Studies that look at how access to reliable day care impacts students long-term have consistently shown favorable tangible impacts — higher college attendance and graduation, lower drug use and arrest rates — as well as positive impacts on maturity.
The research shows that the benefits of universal preschool, while negligible in the classroom, are significant in other areas of children’s lives, at least in the short-term. They allow parents to avoid child-care costs, such as hiring a babysitter, paying for expensive day care or the opportunity cost of a parent staying at home to take care of the child. With subsidized or free child care, traditional family income is more resilient because there will be more sources, creating a more stable home environment.
But the benefits of child care extend beyond the children themselves. Universal child care and affordable preschool would serve to improve the gender pay gap. When children are not in school, women are far more likely to stay at home than men. Taking a break from work sets women back in the workplace and contributes to the gender pay gap.
Both Booker’s baby bonds bill and Harris’ LIFT Act are trying to promote equity, but universal child care is a more comprehensive effort to promote equal opportunity. Progressives should support universal child care, and not just an expansion as most do, for moral and political reasons. Morally, every child should have access to early childcare's long-term benefits and parents should not have to sabotage their careers due to expensive child care. Politically, pushing for ambitious solutions may make incremental progress more likely, as it has for health care coverage expansions. The litmus test dynamic of the Democratic primary is complicated and problematic, but voters and the media should brand the candidates that have not decisively supported universal child care as less progressive than those who have.
Solomon Medintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.