The Pandemic Has Laid Bare Just How Much We Need Universal Childcare

Joe Biden’s childcare plan is a good start, but Democrats need to push for an even more inclusive plan. One hesitates to look for a silver lining in the flaming wreck of 2020. Some situations are so bad that it’s downright insensitive to look for an upside.

Yet, buried in Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s economic recovery plan, there is one surprisingly positive sign: Covid-19 may be the event that forces the United States to finally get serious about universal childcare.

Biden’s plan includes tax credits, which have been standard in plans such as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 proposal. Biden would provide tax credits of up to $8,000 for one child and up to $16,000 for two or more children for households that earn $125,000 or less. Those tax credits are unrestricted but intended to cover childcare costs. However, for children under age five, he also proposes an alternative, sliding-scale structure, borrowed from Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott’s childcare for Working Families Act. Households making up to 1.5 times their state’s median income would have their childcare costs capped at 7% of their total family income, and households living at 200% or below the federal poverty line (about $51,000) would get childcare for free.

This is similar, though not identical, to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s much-hailed universal childcare plan, which she unveiled in 2019; that plan would have capped childcare costs at 7% for everybody, regardless of income or their children’s age, while still providing it for free to people living at that 200% threshold. Biden’s plan also promises “higher wages” for childcare workers, though it’s not specific about how much higher those wages will be. Nonetheless, childcare is on the Democratic platform and part of the conversation. And for the first time, we are talking about making it free for at least some people. That puts us one step closer to a future where childcare is free for all.

Women are driven out of the workforce and pressured into 1950s-style housewifery because daycare costs more money than their paychecks bring in.

There is, after all, a difference between “universal” and “affordable,” and when it comes to childcare, that difference counts for quite a lot. Childcare currently costs more than state college in many locations and sometimes more than rent. Warren, pulling from state-by-state figures by the Economic Policy Institute, put the average cost at between 9% and 36% of a family’s income. As a result, married women are driven out of the workforce and pressured into 1950s-style housewifery simply because daycare costs more than their paychecks bring in. The Center for American Progress estimates that childcare costs alone are responsible for a 13% decline in employment for women with children under five. Meanwhile, single mothers who don’t have the option of leaving the workforce are criminalized for being unable to afford childcare or driven into bankruptcy trying to cover its costs. This is why plans which make childcare free are so much better than even ambitious plans to reduce its costs. When the alternative to daycare is losing your job or going to jail, it should be the state’s responsibility to make sure no one goes without it.

It’s not as if no one has pointed out this problem before. The U.S. Commission for Civil Rights found that American women’s progress was “seriously impeded” by the lack of childcare in 1981. Prior to that, feminists had been organizing and advocating for universal childcare throughout the second wave. It was a cherished goal of Betty Friedan, who spoke in 1970 about the need for daycare centers which “women require if they are going to assume their rightful position in terms of helping in decisions of the society.” Friedan also made state-funded, 24-hour daycare a central demand in her 1970 Strike for Women’s Equality. New York Rep. Bella Abzug introduced legislation for it in 1971.

Yet no matter how hard those women pushed, the idea of state-funded universal childcare never gained momentum. To this day, it remains the frumpy older sister of feminist policy — continually eclipsed by feminist goals that are more relevant to young, childless women (birth control, abortion access) and by leftist demands which serve those with and without children (free college, health care, universal basic income). Even amid the pandemic, with big governmental swings starting to seem more possible, childcare has hardly been the big, ambitious proposal on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Health care and education and universal basic income are all good things. Yet it’s hard not to feel that childcare has languished as a progressive cause, mostly because of its perceived beneficiaries: women, and worse than that, middle-aged, childbearing women, most of whom are lower middle class or poor and many of whom are women of color. Daycare benefits children, too, of course. It leads to improved cognitive and language development, not to mention stronger social skills. But its other function—allowing mothers to lead satisfying and productive lives outside the house—is its most controversial.

We live in a country that loves to use mothers as symbols — the bereavement of Cindy Sheehan or the beleaguered decency of the moms getting teargassed at Black Lives Matter protests in Portland — but which rarely focuses on the needs and circumstances of moms. When it comes to the childcare shortage, the problem is largely invisible to the wealthy, who still enjoy paid childcare as the luxury that it has become, and to the childless, who don’t need it. More importantly, it is largely ignored by fathers, who are rarely the ones to stop working when a family’s budget can’t stretch to cover daycare.

Covid-19 has the potential to change all this, simply because lockdown has taken away even the unsustainable childcare solutions working parents did have and forced us to see how truly impossible it is to balance work and parenting without outside support. It’s put the luckiest parents face-to-face with how unlivable the world is for everyone else. Women, particularly working-class women, have been panicking about being edged out of their jobs by parenthood for many years, but that didn’t drive popular sentiment around the issue. Now, after several months of stuck-at-home parenthood, even white male tech dudes are uttering cries of primal distress. In lockdown, we’ve learned that childcare is not a luxury or a mere convenience; it’s a basic prerequisite for autonomy and participation in public or professional life, and whether it’s done by an unpaid family member or by a paid professional, it has a cost.

Biden has opted to meet the moment halfway rather than seizing it outright. His plan is clearly put forth in the same spirit of “compromise” and moderation that defines his campaign. It is intended to win over progressive and feminist voters — hence its heavy similarity to Warren’s plan or to the plan put forth in February of this year by Sen. Bernie Sanders — without ruffling any moderate feathers. Yet, though it definitely represents a stride forward, it pales in comparison to the national network of federally subsidized, free childcare centers second-wave feminists envisioned we could and should have. That 7% cap will apply to far fewer families than it should — your state’s median income is probably a lot lower than you think. Any plan that leaves some parents scrambling to afford childcare is an insufficient plan. We have a ways to go before we understand childcare as a universal necessity on the level of schools, fire departments, or roads, though anyone with a kid and a job can tell you that’s exactly what it is.

Most data released since the Covid-19 crisis began shows that families are resolving the childcare crisis the way they always have: Making women bite the bullet and do most of the work. As long as that norm predominates in American families, we’ll be able to view childcare as a “personal” issue rather than a political cause, and dads will continue to believe that their children are someone else’s problem. Getting nonparents to mobilize around parenting issues is still like trying to get a toddler to eat boiled spinach.

Yet childcare isn’t a cause in search of a moment anymore. We all know why it’s necessary. Whether we will be able to keep that in mind as the world falls apart is up to us. Covid-19 will pass, but the childcare crisis, which has been ongoing for decades, will continue until we find a fix.

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