Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate was dominated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s clearly contrived effort to make Sen. Bernie Sanders look like a sexist (and CNN’s eagerness to help her achieve that goal). Whether or not you agree with Warren’s claims about the supposed sexism of her fellow candidates and the American people, there was something that Warren and Sanders and the other candidates on the debate stage could agree on: the need for the federal government to pay for childcare so Americans can work more.
Wrapped up in folksy expressions of concern for the “Mommas and Daddys” of the world during the debate, Warren has been peddling this argument and airing complaints about her own childcare woes for months. As Warren told Vox.com last summer, when she was working and had young children, “Child care was the boulder that almost crushed me . . . How many mamas and daddies have been sidelined because they don’t have access to high-quality child care that they can afford?” Warren asked.
The other candidates eagerly agreed, talking at length about “infant care” and preschool funding and the importance of the earliest years of children’s’ lives—all with an eye toward ensuring that their parents were able to go back to work and earn incomes that can be taxed to pay for all of that care. As The Atlantic’s Caitlyn Flanagan tweeted during the debate, “Was it just me or did all the candidates seem to think that the place for Mom is at work and the place for baby is daycare?”
It’s not just Democrats who talk about children as an impediment to wage-earning. At a meeting last year at the White House to discuss child care options, Ivanka Trump “framed it in a way that Democrats have for years—not as a ‘mom’s problem”’ or a ‘families’ problem’ but as an impediment to economic growth.”
But the economics of childcare-for-all proposals is wishful thinking, at best. For example, Warren’s plan, which includes money for federally-funded childcare facilities and government-set wages for childcare workers much higher than the current wage, would cost an estimated $70 billion. That’s money she claims (as she does with nearly every proposal she has made) could be raised only by taxing the wealthiest Americans.
Yet, as Reihan Salam argued when Warren first announced her childcare proposal, even if you could find a way to fund such a program, it’s not clear it would be as beneficial as its advocates claim.
A similarly designed government-funded childcare policy in Quebec, for example, yielded high labor force participation by parents, as intended, but some had significant negative effects on the children who were placed in daycare from an early age. One research paper found “a lasting negative impact on the non-cognitive skills of exposed children.” That study added, “These non-cognitive deficits persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child care access subsequently had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” For Democratic candidates who claim to care deeply about children’s earliest years, such findings should at least give them pause.
As well, the drive for federally-funded universal childcare from birth overlooks what many American women (and an increasing number of men) say they actually want: not more hours on the job and places they can warehouse their children, but more flexible work that allows them to balance their roles as parents and employees.
According to a Pew Research survey that looked at Current Population Survey data from the Census Bureau, “A majority (55 [percent]) of U.S. mothers with children younger than 18 at home are employed full time, up from 34 [percent] a half-century ago.” But they are not all happy to be spending so much time working: “About half of employed parents with children younger than 18–including similar shares of mothers (53 [percent]) and fathers (51 [percent]) – say being a working parent makes it harder for them to be a good parent,” Pew found.
Interestingly, when asked about their own arrangements, 51 percent of working mothers said they enjoyed working full time, while 30 percent said part-time work was best (and 19 percent preferred not to work for pay at all). But when survey respondents were asked what the ideal situation for working parents would be, only 33 percent thought full-time work was ideal for mothers. Indeed, 42 percent said working part-time is ideal for women with young children.
Other opinion polls have found similar trends. A 2015 Gallup survey found, “More than half of women, 56 [percent], who have a child younger than 18 would ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family.” This is true even as women’s preference for working outside the home has increased in the past twenty years.
The Democrats on stage this week offered little in the way of support for families who try to embrace more flexible arrangements, with one parent devoting more time to childrearing or taking time off from work during children’s earliest years. Among the Democratic contenders, only Andrew Yang has explicitly touted his Universal Basic Income plan as one that would benefit stay-at-home parents—and he has been consistently supportive of those parents while campaigning. By contrast, Warren–who in her 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, advocated subsidies for stay-at-home parents–now has nothing to say about them. She included no mention of such subsidies in her childcare-for-all proposal.
Perhaps it’s easier for Warren to distract voters with the claim that she is a victim of sexism than it is to own up to the fact that she’s more comfortable having the federal government dictate what children supposedly need than she is listening to what women actually say they want for themselves and their families.