How would Elizabeth Warren's ambitious child care proposal work?

Senator proposes to create new federal child care

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Democrats running for President in 2020 have unveiled a buffet of increasingly ambitious proposals to strengthen the social safety net.

The latest of these is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal to create a new federal child care system. It's an ambitious twist on the political conversation around working parents, which has recently turned on bipartisan proposals to require paid family leave for new parents, including one pushed by Ivanka Trump.

Warren goes much much further by suggesting the government set up and staff centers for babies and toddlers to guarantee working parents, and specifically mothers, quality daycare options.

Along with the anxiety of parenthood for parents who want to continue their careers or who can't afford to stay home comes the often difficult ordeal of figuring out who will care for the kids on a daily basis -- and how to pay for it.

In introducing the plan, Warren told the story of her own struggles as a working mother and how her Aunt Bee flew to the rescue after a bad daycare experience. "Finding affordable and high-quality child care has gotten even harder since my children were growing up — and not everyone is lucky enough to have an Aunt Bee of their own," Warren wrote in a Medium post outlining her plan.

Warren's plan, assessed by Moody's economist Mark Zandi -- who's worked on both sides of the political aisle, including for John McCain and Barack Obama -- is based on these key points:

  • 12 million kids in care -- It would greatly increase number of children receiving formal child care in the US from 6.8 million children under the age of 5 today to 12 million children -- about 60% of kids in that age range.
  • Public child care centers -- It would make use of the existing Head Start infrastructure to establish centers across the country, guaranteeing affordable, reliable options in "child care deserts."
  • A sliding scale for fees -- Care would be free for people making less than two times the poverty level, or about $50,000 for a family of four. Federal subsidies would insure no other family pays more than 7% of their income on childcare.

Not everyone would take part -- an estimated 30% of kids would still, by their parents' choice, be cared for by family, according to Zandi's analysis -- and it would be costly, with a price tag of $70 billion a year, or $700 billion over 10 years.

Warren's plan is audacious in part because it addresses the gap between proposals that have been floated for parental leave -- which concern newborns -- and universal pre-K, which centers on kids who are preschool aged. That leaves a hole for parents of anyone from about six months to 4 years old, which is a lot of working people.

Who would it help?

Parents -- The argument Warren offers for her plan, structured around her own efforts to keep her job as a law professor when she had young children, is built around the idea of allowing mothers to work. Essentially, she says it would be a smart investment by the government to help more parents stay in the work force full-time, at a moment when the US labor market is historically tight.

In a 2015 poll conducted by The Washington Post, more than three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers said they had made sacrifices in their career to tend to their kids.

That lines up with the most recent Pew survey, taken in 2012 -- which is clearly some time ago. Half of mothers in the survey said that having children made their careers more difficult compared to 16% of dads who worked.

And when asked what their "ideal" working situation would be, most said they would rather work than stay at home -- though they also said they would rather work part-time than full-time.

Child care workers -- One key element of Warren's plan is to pay these child care workers similarly to teachers.

There were more than 1.2 million child care workers in the US in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including those working in child care centers as well as in private homes. They made a median $22,290 per year and about $10.72 per hour. The US also has about 478,500 preschool teachers, according to BLS, and they made slightly more, a median of $28,990 per year.

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers made more than twice what child care workers made in 2017 -- $56,900 per year was the median salary in 2017. So they would, theoretically, be in for a big raise. But being a child care provider usually requires no college degree, while being a preschool teacher might require an associate's degree and being a teacher usually requires at least a college degree.

It's not clear if Warren's plan would supersede the existing patchwork of state licensing requirements, or if it would simply raise the pay scale for child care providers without any additional qualifications required.

How would it work?

There is not currently a grand scale model in the US for universal child care. We're talking new care for literally millions of children.

In total, the federal government already spends about $15 billion on early childhood education, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis. It also heavily subsidizes child care for military service members both on and off base.

Warren's program would more than quadruple that sum, initially by expanding Head Start. That's the federal program for early childhood education of low-income children, and Warren's plan to build out from Head Start would be instantly controversial.

In 2017, Head Start served nearly 900,000 children at a cost of $8.8 billion. Warren's plan could open Head Start to all children.

Ramping up a new infrastructure of child care centers with highly paid workers wouldn't happen overnight. Zandi's analysis suggests it would take at least two years.

Additionally, it could require many, many more workers. The federal government suggests a ratio of not less than one trained adult for every three or four infants and three to six toddlers up to age 2. Preschool can begin at the age of 3, when the suggested ratio is one adult for six to 10 pre-schoolers.

Regulations vary by state, which means the cost of the program would also vary by state.

Then there are questions about whether Head Start is the right model at all. Zandi refers to Head Start as a successful program in his analysis of Warren's plan, but that is far from a universal opinion. Some experts, like Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Lauren Bauer at Brookings, have argued the program is effective and helpful.

Lindsey Burke, the director for education policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has dubbed Head Start a total failure because it has been difficult to quantify its long-term benefit for students.

"Increasing subsidies for early childhood care will just create a new program that likely ends up benefiting middle- and upper-income families," she said.

That has been a criticism of the greatly increased federal tax credit for children, implemented in the 2017 tax reform, which gives parents a $2,000 credit for each child instead of $1,000. Those are also essentially subsidies given at the end of the tax year, however, and not up-front help as parents seek care for their kids.

"Taxpayers want to keep more of their hard-earned money and make these decisions for themselves," said Burke.

Whether that is true will very much become part of the debate in the Democratic primary, however. It is certainly true that Warren is adding a new element to the political conversation.

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