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Democratic Presidential Candidates Get Serious About Universal Childcare & Pre-K

At the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday night, six candidates sometimes repeated the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the past year, but there was one thing that made us sit up and pay attention: This was one of the first times we got to hear the frontrunners detail their plans to help parents who are facing insurmountable costs when it comes to childcare.

In the second hour of the debate the moderator read a question from an Iowa voter who had to quit her job because daycare was going to cost two-thirds of her income. The woman also referred to the fact that a dearth of childcare options in the state had become dangerous, alluding, we assume, to the death of a 4-month-old who was left to sleep on the floor on his stomach in an overcrowded daycare. What were the candidates going to do to solve this?

Pete Buttigieg

“It makes no sense for childcare to cost two-thirds of somebody’s income,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to whom the question was initially addressed. “We’ve got to drive it to 7 percent or below and zero for those families who are living in poverty.”

The South Bend, Indiana, mayor has put forth a plan to invest $700 billion in childcare and education, paid for by reforming the capital gains tax on wealthy Americans. The plan would be to make childcare and early education free for lower-income parents and affordable for all, while raising the pay for childcare workers.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to put federal dollars into making that a reality,” he said. “Until we do that, this will be one of the biggest drivers of the gender pay gap.”

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren then had a chance to explain that her plan for universal childcare makes it free for families that earn less than 200 percent above the poverty line but requires a “small payment” from those who can afford it. This has been an issue close to her heart since her own struggle to find childcare when she was a mother of two and a law professor nearly derailed her career.

“I think about how many women of my generation just got knocked off the track and never got back on, how many of my daughter’s generation get knocked off the track and don’t get back, how many mommas and daddies today are getting knocked off the track and never get back on,” she said. “I have a 2 cent wealth tax, so that we can cover childcare for all of our children and provide universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America and stop exploiting the people who do this valuable work, largely black and brown women.”

Like Buttigieg, Warren’s plan would also cap childcare spending at 7 percent of a family’s income.

Bernie Sanders

When it was Senator Bernie Sanders’ turn, he agreed with his opponents that universal childcare is essential.

“Every psychologist in the world knows 0 through 4 are the most important years of human life intellectually and emotionally, and yet our current childcare system is an embarrassment,” he said. “It is unaffordable. Childcare workers are making wages lower than McDonald’s workers. We need to fundamentally change priorities in America.”

Sanders has not released many details of his universal childcare plan but includes it in his pledge to fight for working families.

Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden also voiced his support for “free universal infant care,” though it’s not something he has outlined before. (His education plan does include universal pre-K starting at 3.) He reiterated his own story of having to rely on family to care for his sons after the accident that killed his daughter and first wife before launching into a few bullet points of how he’d solve the childcare crisis.

“When I triple the amount of money for title one [low-income] schools, every child 3, 4 and 5 years old will have full schooling and after-school programs, which will release some of the burden,” he said. “Second, I think we should have an $8,000 tax credit, which will put 7 million women back to work.”

Amy Klobuchar & Tom Steyer

Senator Amy Klobuchar didn’t get the chance to answer the question, but her site also proposes capping childcare costs at 7 percent and raising the wages of childcare workers. Rather than universal pre-K, she says she will ensure access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds by partnering with states and strengthening Head Start programs. Businessman Tom Steyer, who was also on the stage, has not yet released a plan for childcare or early education.

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