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The 2020 Democrats’ Daycare and Child Care Policy Plans, Explained

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


As the Democratic candidates for the 2020 election start to roll out policies to entice voters and define their view of American politics, parents need to pay close attention to proposals that will have a direct impact on them and their families. At top of mind: 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, nothing meaningful has come to pass. But the frontrunners of the 2020 race (in this piece, we have defined them as candidates polling above 1 percent) have some 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 and an expert in work and family issues and gender stratification in the labor force, for her insight. Glass 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 3. 

Senator Joe Biden

Biden has not released a child care plan. He does, however, support universal prekindergarten

Senator Bernie Sanders

Although Sanders has not released a policy position on child care, a campaign spokesperson reaffirmed his commitment to universal child care and early education in a statement to Vox. He also sponsored a 2011 bill called the Foundations for Success Act, which was a grant program that would have established child care for children from 6 weeks to pre-K. He also supports expanding Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the supplemental assistance program for working moms. 

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What Glass Thinks: While grant programs can be great when they are given to states with stipulations for how they need to be used, Glass argues that they can often be a catch-all fund for experimental programs that are run on the state level. She is also indifferent to the idea that parents should get back into the workforce at six weeks. 

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.”

Filling the gap of care between the infant years and the age in which toddlers are eligible for pre-kindergarten is, however, still important.

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.”

Senator Kamala Harris

Harris’s campaign website reveals a strong focus on economic justice for working families. One of her first priorities, if she were elected president, would be to give working families a tax credit of up to $6,000 dollars a year. Her policy would also increase federal investment in child care so that no family pays more than 7 percent of their income on child care, a policy piece likely lifted from the Child Care for Working Families Act, a piece of legislation that she co-sponsored, which she would be likely to continue to support as president.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete has yet to release a comprehensive plan on child care policy, but did signal support for expanding the child care tax credit or pushing forward a child care allowance for families in April of 2019

What Glass Thinks: This is the weakest possible approach, per Glass. “It’s helpful for the small slice of parents who qualify for the tax credit, and have expenses that are not currently covered by it. But it really does nothing to increase availability or quality [of child care]. When you have 22 states where infant care is more expensive than sending a kid to college, I don’t think that you can expand the tax credit enough to put a dent in that expense,” she says.

Beto O’Rourke

As a former House Representative, O’Rourke was one of the many sponsors of the Child Care for Working Families Act, a sweeping policy plan released in 2017 that would have transformed child care across the country, making it far more affordable for working families and ensuring that no person pays more than 7 percent of their income to send their kids to child care. Although he has not released a detailed policy platform for his own campaign, O’Rourke tweeted in July that he supports universal pre-K and affordable child care.

On July 19, O’Rourke released a more detailed policy plan for caregivers that involves strengthening Social Security. “[Social security] punishes workers who temporarily leave the workforce in order to care for a child or an ailing parent,” reads a statement on his website. When working parents leave their jobs in order to take care of family members, their retirement benefits suffer, and it disproportionately affects women and people of color, who are more likely to leave the workforce to become caregivers than men. The Caregiver Credit would give any parent raising a child under 12 years old — or a family member of any age who is disabled — a credit equal to 50 percent of the average earnings of a full-time American worker; caregivers could collect this credit for up to five years. That sounds a lot like a federal paid family leave plan, and one that won’t harm retirement benefits, either.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang is light on the specifics but has said that if he is elected president, he will support early childhood education for all. Per his campaign website: “Pre-K and early childhood education have been proven to get kids off to a better start, and it also relieves families from having to find and pay for daycare for their children when they are 3 and 4. Other countries are investing in it, including China, and we need to as well for the good of our children and families and our long-term competitiveness as a country.” 

What Glass Thinks: Glass’s own feelings about how we should provide early childhood and pre-kindergarten education to kids matches up with Yang’s. “What makes sense is to lower the age of public schooling to 3, and to provide subsidies so that parents can either stay home or find high-quality care,” she says. “When you look at Germany and the U.K., they’re expanding systems that start at 3 or 4 years of age so that you really can get them to a place where they can get the enrichment that they need so that they can start school and learn all the good skills that you need to survive in today’s world.”

Senator Cory Booker

Booker is committed to guaranteeing universal early childhood education for kids in the United States. He also co-sponsored the Child Care for Working Families Act.