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The Democratic Candidates’ Policies on Universal Child Care, Explained

What are the candidates proposing to offset the high cost of child care? Here's what to know.

Today is Super Tuesday, and delegates from 14 states and one U.S. territory are up for the taking by the remaining four Presidential nominees, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Super Tuesday is often seen as the definitive moment of the Presidential Primary and is when the majority of delegates are awarded to candidates. Right now, it’s unclear who will win the most delegates tonight, or if the race will be so close that it could lead to a contested Democratic National Convention in July. 

In any case, Super Tuesday marks the first time Democratic candidates’ policies, and the candidates themselves, will face approval from a broad and diverse electorate of voters that goes far beyond polling. Some candidates are taking the fight to make a difference at the polls a step further — Biden announced a slew of endorsements last night from last-minute primary dropouts Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, while others are relying on their messaging, canvassing, and of course, their plans. One policy that will be at top of mind for most parents is the the high cost of child care

In many states, the cost of child care exceeds the cost of a four-year college. Some families spend up to a third of their income just trying to find a place for their child to go. This is a growing issue, and some politicians have attempted to craft public policy to fill the gap. In the House and Senate, there have been many block grant proposals and federal investment ideas, including 2017’s Child Care for Working Families Act. So far, however, nothing meaningful has come to pass. But the nominees have a number of child care proposals and have signaled support for popular big-budget items like universal pre-K. 

So, which Democratic candidate’s child care plans hold water? To offer some insight, we laid out the plans and then spoke to Dr. Jennifer Glass, a professor at University of Texas Austin for her insight. Glass also hinted at her own vision for a good child care plan: a program in which parents can take up to a year of subsidized parental leave for the first year in which their baby is born; take their child to an in-home community child care center; and then get them into a public school pre-K program at the age of three. 

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Senator Joe Biden

Biden has not released a child care plan. He does, however, support universal pre-kindergarten

Senator Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders released a universal child care and pre-k plan that would provide free child care and pre-k for all in late February. The plan would be transformative. Sanders plans to pay for the massive program by taxing the extreme wealth of the top .1 percent, bringing in $1.5 trillion in tax revenue over the next decade which would be put into a free universal, quality child care program for all parents, regardless of income.

Sanders would guarantee free, full-day, full-week, high quality child care from infancy to age three, and would also ensure that providers can serve parents who work non-traditional hours, like people who work shift jobs. The program would be funded entirely through federal funding and be administered through cooperation with state programs, public school districts, and more. The minimum wage of child care workers — who work starvation wages — would be raised, class sizes would become smaller, and minimum standards for classroom settings will be set.

One major issue Sanders points to in his plan is that parents of children with disabilities struggle even harder to find appropriate child care for their young kids. As such, he would expand funding within the Institute for Education Services to set standards for how early childhood workers can support children with disabilities, increase access to federally funded technology services, and double funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV).

He also aims to pass the Universal School Meals Program Act, a bill he introduced with Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, to ensure year-round school meals for those in child care and pre-k, invest in small child care facilities like home-based care, and enact his K-12 childhood education plan, the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education to ensure that the transition from pre-k to kindergarten is smooth and consistent.

To support child care workers, Sanders plans to increase the work force of early childhood educators from 1.3 million to 2.6 million, give everyone in early education a living wage, and ensure lead teachers are paid at the same rate of kindergarten teachers. He’d also increase educational and professional requirements for early childhood educators, increase access to professional development, and give childcare workers protections to unionize and engage in collective bargaining in order to ensure their workplace safety and rights through passing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act.

What Glass Thinks: Bernie’s plan provides free child care from infancy to three. Glass is indifferent to the idea that parents should get back into the workforce quickly after childbirth and supports paid leave initiatives alongside expanding pre-k in public schools.

It’s a real mistake to think that the solution to infant care is to subsidize it,” she says. “Infant care is always going to be extremely expensive. It makes so much more sense to subsidize parents staying home for that first year than it does to try and subsidize some kind of public provision of infant care. I’m much more in favor of the function of a paid parental leave in the first year of life so that nobody needs infant care beyond six months to a year.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Warren has drawn up a substantive universal child care policy proposal. The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Plan would subsidize child care for all parents across the United States on a sliding scale in accordance to their income. The plan would make sure that no parent paid more than 7 percent of their income on child care programs and many parents would be able to access these programs for free. Under her plan, the federal government partners with local providers to create a large network of child care options and also subsidizes in-home child care centers. It would also give early child care providers raises comparable to pre-school teachers. 

The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Plan would be funded through another proposal Warren has released, a wealth tax, which would be imposed on Americans with a net worth more than 50 million, which would generate $2.75 trillion in revenue over the next decade and cover the cost of the plan four times over. She’s even released a calculator for families to determine how much they would pay under her plan. 

What Glass Thinks: While Warren’s plan is the most comprehensive, Glass has long held the belief that simply addressing cost in a child care plan is not enough to deal with the other factors including quality and access. While Warren’s plan does provide for professional development and raises for early childhood education workers, as well as increasing access to care across the country, Glass thinks the most fiscally responsible and tenable plan is to put 3-year-olds in public schools alongside kindergarteners and first graders. 

“This is not impossible for states to do,” says Glass. “We know that there are places where this is already happening. It’s just a matter of getting an entire nation on board, so that the feasibility of early child care doesn’t depend on where you live, which is the crazy system that we have right now.” She adds that candidates should be focused on ways to move sustainably to a system where local communities and states fully fund this kind of universal pre-K. “That we have some kind of national accountability for federal money that is used to initiate or start that process,” she says, “so you can’t just create a slapdash program that doesn’t ensure quality care.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former Mayor of New York City, who entered the 2020 race late in the presidency and is self-funding his campaign, says he will “ensure affordable child care” as part of a plan to create an “All-In Economy.” He wants to create a nationally-recognized credentialing program for early childhood professionals and start a national Apprenticeship Degrees program. He also wants to increase the pay of child care workers by increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to rural areas to incentivize the opening of child care centers, and provide grants to close the salary gap between pre-k and kindergarten teachers in low-income areas.