Bernie Sanders’s Universal Childcare Plan Would Be Life Changing for Millions of Parents

Bernie Sanders’s new plan for universal childcare would not only offer a life-changing service for millions of parents. It would mark a historic victory in the struggle against racial and class segregation.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the South Carolina Democratic Party "First in the South" dinner on February 24, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Drew Angerer / Getty

Bernie Sanders’s platform is going to make you want to have a baby.

Well, maybe not. But if you’ve been thinking about starting a family — or adding to one — Sanders’s childcare plan will make it a lot easier. It’s the best proposed by any presidential candidate since Shirley Chisholm, a preschool teacher and Congresswoman who ran in 1972.

The lack of decent and affordable childcare in the United States remains a scandal and hasn’t improved since Chisholm’s day. Adults who have kids spend on average between 9 and 22 percent of their income on childcare, and for poor people the burden is much higher (35 percent). It’s no surprise, then, that having children is a leading cause of poverty in the United States. Black and Hispanic mothers struggle especially with access to good childcare and are especially likely to make career sacrifices as a result, but more than half of mothers report working fewer hours to save on childcare, and a quarter have left the workforce entirely in order to care for their children.

Childcare workers are paid disastrously low wages, $11 an hour. Despite the well-established emotional and intellectual importance of the 0–3 years for human development, day care doesn’t get enough oversight and parents must inspect each potential childcare center themselves, rigorously evaluating potential health and safety problems and pedagogy with all the time and expertise we don’t have (a search that Megan Erickson has written eloquently about in Jacobin). Is there enough outdoor time? Do kids spend too much time watching TV? Many working women — including Elizabeth Warren and this writer — have had to remove our kids from day care situations that didn’t meet our standards, while others have simply had to put up with them, lacking any alternative. Sometimes it’s a choice with tragic consequences: Erickson has written about harrowing examples of children who have died in our horrifically unregulated day care centers.

Sanders has long been a strong advocate of universal childcare; in 2011 he sponsored a bill to provide childcare and education to all kids ages six weeks until kindergarten. Sanders is also the only candidate in the race serious about protecting, improving, and desegregating public K–12 education (the closest thing our society currently has to universal childcare), including by raising the pay of its (majority female) workforce.

Sanders’s new plan will give every child free full-day, high-quality care from infancy through the age of three, ten hours a day, with funding and quality standards overseen by the federal government. It will also guarantee a free pre-K education, with special attention to support for children with disabilities. Free meals will be provided. His plan will fund the creation of new, renovated, or upgraded childcare centers all over the country, recognizing that at present many communities simply don’t have any, or don’t have enough. Sanders will more than double the number of early childhood educators, to more than 2.6 million, and guarantee them a living wage, as well as ensuring that they have the education in early childhood education that they need, as well as collective bargaining rights.

Despite the importance of childcare to working people, and despite its salience both as a matter of child welfare and of the advancement of women, it rarely becomes a presidential campaign issue. Yet childcare has had an unusual presence in this 2020 presidential campaign. Elizabeth Warren has been vocal about working women’s need for childcare and deserves credit for giving the issue such prominence. She speaks powerfully about her own experience, recalling when her own kids were young and her son’s day care was so bad that her aunt had to fly across the country and babysit for the next seventeen years (#auntgoals). Her plan would create more options and higher standards. It would be free for some people, and made more affordable to others. It would be much better than the status quo.

Warren’s plan is not as good as Sanders’s because it’s means-tested. It is free to anyone making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Beyond that, costs will be capped at no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. This would help a lot, but it would be far less politically viable, since means-tested programs never end up being as popular as universal ones; when conservatives or neoliberals come to make cuts to them in times of austerity, they’re vulnerable.

These are some of the disadvantages of means-testing any program, but there’s a particular problem with means-testing childcare. Free preschool for all gives us an opportunity to give every kid an equal early education from the start, and to get all kids and families accustomed to attending the same schools regardless of race or background. When we make childcare free for some and not for others, we invite the paying customers to seek private options, disappearing from the public system, developing what they imagine (rightly or wrongly) to be higher standards than everyone else. In this way, segregation will continue to appear natural to both grown-ups and kids, and outcomes for rich and poor to be dramatically different. Pete Buttigieg’s plan, while less specific than Warren’s or Sanders,’ is similar to Warren’s in that it’s a commendably serious investment but also means-tested.

Another reason Sanders’s plan is much better than those offered by Warren or Buttigieg is that Sanders sees a clear role for the federal government in providing and overseeing this childcare. In contrast, Warren insists that “local communities would be in charge.” Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to appoint some good people to run it at the federal level rather than tossing it into the hands of a fragile township that never asked for this job? Many local communities don’t have the capacity to oversee any of this. They lack not only funding but even governance structures adequate to administer serious budgets and staff. Buttigeg’s notion of how decentralized this would be is slightly less wooly than Warren’s but more neoliberal: he wants to make sure parents have — you guessed it — freedom of choice.

It’s great that other US presidential candidates are thinking of joining the rest of the developed world in this area — but Bernie Sanders’s plan is by far the best.