Child Care for All policies have gathered tremendous momentum. From the presidential debate stage to congressional hearing rooms to county ballot boxes, influential leaders are moving forward on visionary proposals. The best of these proposals employ a social justice lens to accomplish the following advances in child care policy: (1) address affordability and availability for families; (2) ensure that child care jobs are good jobs, with good wages and benefits and the right to organize; (3) implement quality-assurance measures, equipped with the resources to improve quality and sensitivity to cultural differences in defining quality; (4) address the continuum of care, starting at birth and including the needs of school-age children and children with disabilities, and (5) are available when and where families need it.
In what follows, I will briefly survey the many fronts on which all this progress is being made.
Presidential Debate Stage
In their debate arguments, stump speeches, and online platforms, the candidates for this year’s Democratic presidential nominee have made it clear that affordable, high-quality child care will be a part of this November’s election, no matter who wins the primaries. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, which she also introduced in Congress last year with Rep. Deb Haaland. It is modeled on the 1970s Comprehensive Child Development Act, and also builds on existing law to create affordable, high quality child care options. In addition, last Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders announced his free, universal child care and early education plan. His plan would provide funding through the federal government for a child care program administered by states and tribes, coordinating with local public school systems to provide at least ten hours of daily child care for infants and children up to age 3, regardless of family income. It would also connect the funding to living wages for child care providers and other quality measures. Both Warren and Sanders also address public pre-K in their campaign platforms, as well as the need for paid family and medical leave, provision of which ensures parents can stay home with their children in the earliest months.
High-quality child care will be a part of this November’s election, no matter who wins the primaries.
And Warren and Sanders are not alone: the various 2020 child care platforms show that the majority of the major Democratic candidates for office are making universal child care and early education a priority. People of all backgrounds and political affiliations are demanding child care and early education plans that ensure flexible, high-quality, and culturally competent programs. They want the people teaching their children to earn fair compensation. While some policy plans are better than others, most presidential candidates, at the very least, acknowledge the overwhelming support and need for universal child care and early education.
The National Stage
In February, two congressional committees held hearings on child care and early education to shine the spotlight on the challenges. The House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education held a hearing called “Solving America’s Child Care Crisis: Supporting Parents, Children, and the Economy,” while the House Committee on Small Business examined “Taking Care of Business: How Childcare Is Important for Regional Economies.”
And they aren’t just talking about the problems: powerful solutions have reached Congress as well. In “Solving America’s Child Care Crisis,” members of Congress spoke to the Education and Labor Committee about the Child Care for Working Families Act, first introduced in Congress in 2017 by Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA), who leads the committee, and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic leader of the Senate committee that oversees child care. The bill guarantees families can afford high-quality care—paying no more than 7 percent of their income—and invests in the workforce while also expanding pre-K options. It makes child care and early education affordable and accessible to everyone, and makes the significant public investment necessary to meet families’ needs. By providing financial assistance for child care on a sliding scale based on income, it is inclusive of all families while targeting populations who historically have been oppressed or denied resources.
Increased resources for child care have also arrived through other legislative channels. In 2018, members of Congress made a down payment on broader reform with a $3 billion increase in the federal budget for child care and early education. This was the largest funding increase in history for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). While the funding increase is primarily intended to help states make up for chronic historic underfunding—underfunding which has made it so that only one in six eligible families is being served by the program, and early educators are being paid poorly—it has nevertheless helped many families and child care providers across the country. A coalition of national child care advocates, led by the National Women’s Law Center, recently sent a letter to Congress asking for an additional increase of more than $7 billion for child care and early learning programs for 2021 (including $5 billion more for CCDBG funds)—a drop in the bucket when one considers what’s needed, but an important incremental step as advocates work toward large-scale reform.
The White House has been talking about child care as well, demonstrating that the public demand for change is being heard even beyond the legislature. Unfortunately, their proposals, which operate on the erroneous belief that overregulation is the source of our nation’s child care ills, would dismantle crucial safety and health protections. Having so many elected officials acknowledge child care as a priority is an important step forward; but not just any reform will do.
Movement at the State and Local Levels
The movement for child care has made strides in municipal and state governments as well. On March 3, the voters of Alameda County, California will decide whether to pass a ballot initiative that would raise funding to improve the affordability of high-quality child care and increase the wages of early childhood educators. In Washington, D.C., the Birth-to-Three For All D.C. Act was signed into law in 2018 to address both affordability for families and better compensation for the child care workforce. While it has yet to be fully implemented, it sets forth a bold vision for what’s possible when the political will is there. At the state level, Washington State, California, and Oregon took important steps toward addressing their child care challenges in 2019, and Massachusetts legislators introduced a universal child care bill during the last legislative session. New York State has a Child Care Availability Task Force, and in New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer has put forward the comprehensive NYC Under Three proposal, which has been introduced in the state legislature.
Foundations of a National Movement
All of this momentum is tied directly to a growing grassroots movement for child care, featuring the leadership of women of color who are both mothers and care workers. In 2018, more than 250 parents, teachers, caregivers, and advocates from twenty-five states capped years of organizing with the first-ever Grassroots Assembly for Child Care and Early Education (followed by a regional convening in Detroit last year and plans for more forthcoming). These assemblies set the foundation for the Grassroots Movement for Child Care and Early Education, a network of leaders across the country committed to comprehensive policy action on child care and early education.
The call for Child Care for All must include a social justice lens that is universal, and that considers first the needs of Black and Latinx families and women, all of whom still face enormous institutional discrimination. If it keeps equity as its central goal, Child Care for All could be one of the most impactful policies of any kind. With such a visionary objective, success will not be easy. But with champions of the policy vying for the White House, and holding seats in Congress, state houses, and city halls throughout the United States, and parents, early educators, and advocates coming together all over the country, Child Care for All has become a matter of not if, but when.