America’s Child Care Crisis Is an Economic Crisis

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and other candidates finally take notice.

Child care is not something nice to have. It is a pressing crisis holding back the entire economy. Growth depends on more people working and working more productively. When parents who want to work can’t fully participate, America hurts only itself. Fortunately, many of the people running for president appear to have gotten the memo, making child care likely to be a topic during the Democratic debates.

Up until the 2000s, American women steadily marched into paid employment, mainly women with children. Our economy would be 11 percent smaller if they hadn’t. But since then they’ve started to fall away. A main culprit: the high cost of care. Labor force participation is today 19 percent lower for women with children than for comparable women who do not have children.

Child care is particularly expensive in this country. In the United States, it easily reaches tens of thousands of dollars a year, often taking up more of a family’s budget than food or even housing. It consumes a larger share of a couple’s income in the United States than in all but two developed countries, New Zealand and Britain. The rising cost of child care since the 1990s has dampened women’s employment in the United States by 5 percent overall and by 13 percent for those with kids under five. Almost two million parents report quitting a job, not taking a job or significantly changing one because of problems with care.

What’s the solution? According to many of the Democratic candidates, it’s universal relief. Under Elizabeth Warren’s plan, the federal government would offer money to states and local communities to expand child care. It would be free for many lower-income families and capped at 7 percent of income for all others. Three other candidates — Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Eric Swalwell — also support universal child care, according to Vox, although through congressional Democrats’ more complicated bill to bolster the availability and affordability of child care and preschool. Bernie Sanders has long called for universal child care but hasn’t put forward a plan for it since 2011.

Investing in universal care can pay off. Quebec instituted low-cost, universal child care in 1996. Since then, the share of working women aged 26 to 44 in the province has come close to 85 percent, the highest in the world. It increased 16 percent for mothers of children 5 or younger, compared with just 4 percent in the rest of the country.

We also have experience here at home. During World War II, when the government ran a nationwide network of day care centers so that women could work in factories, those who used them were more likely to work and to work longer. In a smaller-scale experiment, Washington, D.C., began offering parents free, universal preschool in 2009; the program increased the share of women in the city’s labor force by 10 percentage points.

Other candidates back more incremental ways to address child care. Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet and Seth Moulton want to increase tax credits to help ease the cost. Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, Andrew Yang and Cory Booker are fans of universal preschool, which helps solve the problem for parents of older children.

Child care has even caught Republicans’ attention. In his most recent budget proposal, President Trump included a $1 billion one-time investment that would require states to compete against one another for the money by pledging to reduce regulations on child care. But too much regulation is not the cause of our problem. In 2013, no states got a top grade for their health and safety standards. Few states regulate whether care is enriching or developmentally appropriate, and many allow staff-to-toddler ratios of 1:10 or higher.

Regulation and safety are just one part of the picture. Child care is a three-legged stool: A functioning system that would support parents and providers requires investing in affordability, accessibility and high quality. Just over half of American families live in places where there are either three times as many children as available child care spots or no spots at all. For those who can find one, it means little if they can’t afford it or if the care is so shoddy that they can’t trust it.

If a child care proposal focuses only on bolstering one leg, the others will grow weaker under the pressure. More child care spots won’t necessarily mean parents can afford them. More money for parents won’t help address quality or access. Even Ms. Warren’s plan, the most comprehensive offered so far, doesn’t fix all of these pieces. While her staff says states and cities would get incentives to expand slots, there is no guarantee that enough child care spaces would be created to meet the country’s need.

Those who want to lead the country have finally realized child care is something they must address. Only a bold, comprehensive solution will end this economic crisis once and for all.

Why I Was Wrong About Elizabeth Warren

And her growing popularity suggests others are coming around, too.

As the Democratic presidential campaign began, I was deeply skeptical of Elizabeth Warren.

My first objection was that she appeared to have parlayed possible Native American heritage to gain academic jobs (Harvard Law School listed her as Native American beginning in 1995). That offended me, and I knew it would repel huge numbers of voters.

Second, I thought she shot from the hip and, with her slight political experience, would wilt on the campaign trail.

Third, I thought she was a one-note Sally, eloquent on finance but thin on the rest of domestic and foreign policy.

So much for my judgment: I now believe I was wrong on each count, and her rise in the polls suggests that others are also seeing more in her. Warren has become the gold standard for a policy-driven candidate, and whether or not she wins the Democratic nomination, she’s performing a public service by helping frame the debate.

Let’s examine my misperceptions. First, The Boston Globe conducted a rigorous examination of Warren’s legal career, and it is now clear that she never benefited professionally from Native American associations.

“The Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools,” the newspaper concluded.

Then there’s the concern about political naïveté and inexperience. Warren first ran for office only in 2012; even Pete Buttigieg has been in elective politics longer.

It’s reasonable to worry about her electability, partly because last year she won re-election in Massachusetts as senator with a smaller share of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton had received two years earlier in the state. In contrast, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota hugely outperformed Clinton.

I worried about a tendency to shoot from the hip when Warren misread an article and in 2016 wrote a Facebook rant denouncing a supposedly greedy Trump-supporting investor, Whitney Tilson. In fact: Tilson opposed Trump and agrees with Warren on most issues; indeed, Tilson had previously donated to Warren.

The unbalanced screed resembled a Trump tweet and made me wonder about Warren’s judgment. But Warren later apologized, and she has been more careful since. Tilson told me that he thinks the rant was not part of a pattern but perhaps reflected a sleep-deprived moment.

More broadly, Warren has improved tremendously as a politician. Early on, she sometimes came across as a stern Harvard professor eager to grill you about an obscure tort case. She’s now much better on the hustings. Forget the tort case and Harvard Law; she’s an Oklahoma gal who wants to have a beer with you.

Finally, I was manifestly wrong on Warren’s policies. She has been a geyser of smart proposals, including one I particularly like for universal child care. This would resemble the outstanding child care program operated by the U.S. military and would benefit both working moms and at-risk kids.

Warren also has a range of other proposals, pertaining to everything from election reform to housingantitrust to corporate governance. Then she offers a wealth tax to help pay for social programs.

One of America’s biggest problems is the collapse of the working class and the lower middle class, with suicide at a 30-year high and drug and alcohol abuse causing life expectancy to fall. Warren confronts that crisis head-on both with her personal story and with sharp policies to boost opportunity. Her 2017 memoir, “This Fight Is Our Fight,” is that rarity of campaign books: a decent read.

Warren’s proposals might or might not succeed, but they are serious, based on work by top scholars. She is a believer in a market economy, regulated to keep it from being rigged, and in corporations that contribute to the well-being of all. And while she’s no expert on foreign policy, her instincts on avoiding war with Iran and showing concern for Palestinians seem good ones.

At her best, Warren is also brilliant at shaping the narrative. In 2011, she explained why taxing the rich isn’t “class warfare.”

“There’s nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” she said in a clip that went viral. “You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces the rest of us paid for.”

She ended: “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”

That’s a conversation we need to have in America, and I’m glad Warren is getting attention so that she can make her case.