Eric Adams Is Cutting Childcare While NYC Wants to Expand It

Former New York mayor Bill de Blasio established a wildly popular universal pre-K childcare program. Current mayor Eric Adams is slashing it to the bone — a deeply loathed move that could spell political trouble for him.

A mother and child in New York City. (The Image Bank / Getty Images)

Now and then, New York City takes a massive step toward social democracy. During the mid–twentieth century, thanks to the New Deal, the power of organized labor, and the mayoralty of Fiorello La Guardia, New Yorkers lived in a city that invested in the lives and leisure of its working class in unprecedented ways, as Joshua Freeman documents in his 2001 book, Working-Class New York. The city invested in affordable housing and public health projects, cheap public transit and free higher education at the City University of New York. Workers could enjoy a subsidized evening out at the ballet, and kids still play on the beautiful ball fields that New York City built in Central Park back then.

Thanks to decades of class warfare from above, the idyll Freeman describes has been much diminished, but some of the social and even physical infrastructure remains, which means New York still has better public goods and a stronger safety net than most other American cities. And at times, we’re still able to expand on these in remarkable ways. A case in point: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s establishment of universal pre-K for all of New York City’s four-year-olds and subsequent expansion of the public preschool program to three-year-olds.

Previously, the city had some decent free preschool available for its poorest residents. But the reason universal programs are so much better politically than means-tested ones is that their universality makes them wildly popular — which means serious political blowback when they’re taken away.

De Blasio’s successor, Mayor Eric Adams, is now finding this out the hard way. Adams has been cutting back on the popular program, making it nearly impossible for many New York parents to use the city’s public childcare and often forcing them to shell out tens of thousands of dollars — and leading to parents organizing against the cuts and a new push to expand the childcare program.

The phrase “working class” appears often in Mayor Eric Adams’s public speeches. He said in January, for example, “every day, we are delivering for working-class New Yorkers. Just look at the numbers.”

Yes, let’s look at the numbers. According to New Yorkers United for Child Care, this mayor has cut almost $400 million from the city’s 3-K and pre-K programs since 2022, and has been proposing to gouge them by another 14 percent next year.

The vast majority of New York City parents can’t afford childcare, according to a report last month from the 5BORO Institute, which found that a family would have to make over $300,000 a year to comfortably swing the cost. (New York isn’t alone, or even the costliest of cities for parents seeking day care: internal data from the Bank of America last fall found that the cost was even higher in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles).

New York City parents rallied at City Hall on Monday, protesting Mayor Adams’s proposed cuts. The city’s education commissioner, David Banks, indicated at a City Council hearing that day that those cuts may be restored, no doubt because of the public outcry. Banks was “fighting like heck” to reverse these programs, he assured City Council and the parents who were present.

That’s reassuring news. But some socialist and progressive leaders are thinking bigger, calling for universal childcare, an idea that’s long overdue — and perhaps finally winnable.

City Council member Jennifer Gutiérrez, who represents Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Ridgewood, has introduced a bill to create an office of childcare, which would be charged with establishing free childcare to all New York City residents. So far, the bill has twenty-nine sponsors, including Tiffany Cabán and Alexa Avilés, the two members backed by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as well as other left councilmembers like Chi Ossé, Shahana Hanif, and Lincoln Restler.

The call is echoing in New York’s state capital, too. This week, socialist elected officials were joined by advocates rallying on the steps of New York’s state capitol as part of a push for universal child care. DSA-backed Brooklyn state senator Jabari Brisport has introduced a bill to provide free childcare statewide. It won’t pass this year, but his office told Jacobin they are planning to push it hard in 2025.

This year, Brisport and allies are pushing for smaller but significant reforms, including $1.2 billion in permanent funding for a childcare workforce. They’re also resisting the Democratic governor’s right-wing effort to tie childcare eligibility to employment. Winning these, they hope, will help strengthen their forces to win bigger next year.

It’s a testament to how beaten down we are as parents in the United States that we see proposals like this, roll our eyes, and think, well, that will never happen. But the United States is unusual among rich countries in leaving parents of young children so unsupported, and there’s nothing inevitable about this high-cost scarcity. Governments can spend more, pay workers decently, and provide quality, safe, engaging childcare for everyone who needs it — and many do.

Nordic countries subsidize childcare for everyone and provide it for free to low-income families. In France, free public preschool begins at age two or three, and parents get huge tax breaks for childcare for younger babies.

In the United States, we talk a good game about women’s equality (happy Women’s History Month, by the way), but raising children still takes a huge and well-documented hit on women’s material security. The fact that, within the home, women are primarily responsible for this labor remains the main reason for the persistence of the gender pay gap (this despite women’s higher educational achievement). Universal childcare is an important part of the solution to this problem.

When mothers have access to childcare, they are more satisfied with their lives and are better off financially. Researchers have found that the quality, affordability, and availability of childcare in East Germany (GDR) under communism had lasting and measurable positive effects on the wages, promotions, and social status of working women in that country. Although the “Iron Curtain” is long gone, socialized childcare remains popular, and the areas that used to be part of the GDR still have better public childcare systems than the former West Germany does.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the current childcare crisis, the Center for American Progress documented as early as 2019, is driving women out of the workforce, and was a persistent and under-recognized theme of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign.

It’s unlikely that our federal government — dominated by centrists and right-wingers friendly to Mayor Adams’s way of thinking — will do anything big for parents and children anytime soon. But that’s no reason such reforms can’t be enacted by visionaries at the city and state levels. The backlash to Adams’s budget cuts shows how popular childcare is with families. Now is the moment to defend it — and to build something bigger.