This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate, did something extraordinary: She laid out a plan for universal, affordable, high-quality childcare for all American families. It’s a historic move; no presidential candidate has talked about universal childcare since the issue was politically torpedoed in the 1970s. By ensuring that the government spends enough money to guarantee that parents don’t have to spend more than 7 percent of their own income on care, while also raising standards for provider training and pay, she would get the government to bridge the gap between what parents can afford and what it costs to offer quality care. Families currently shell out tens of thousands of dollars a year for care, yet providers still struggle to offer decent settings for their children.
But there’s one piece of the childcare puzzle that remains weak in her plan: accessibility. Our country’s urgent childcare crisis is not just about the dizzying price tag of care, nor about the paucity of good providers. For many, it’s about being able to find any care at all. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, just over half of American families live in what it calls childcare deserts—places where either there are three times as many children as each open childcare slot, or simply no open slots at all.
Warren doesn’t ignore the issue. In a blog post describing her new plan, she noted this exact problem, that there are “communities without an adequate number of licensed child care options,” as she puts it. The fact sheet laying out her plan also states that it will “establish and support a network of locally-run Child Care and Early Learning Centers and Family Child Care Homes so that every family, regardless of their income or employment, can access high-quality, affordable child care options.”
As was explained to me by the Warren campaign, the way this would work in practice is that her plan would essentially dangle a huge, new, and expandable pot of money in front of states, cities, nonprofits, and other entities that wish to participate. In order to get that money, they would have to address how they will ensure accessibility for as many parents in as many places as possible. The campaign also hopes that by increasing pay for providers, more people will be motivated to enter the field, easing potential staffing issues.
Yet even they admit that because it’s not a mandatory program, there will likely still be places where parents can’t access good, affordable care. An analysis by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics found that Warren’s plan would increase the number of children in childcare from 6.79 million now to over 12 million within a decade. Still, that’s far from “universal” childcare in a country forecast to have over 25 million kids under the age of 5 by then, even if not all of their parents would want or need care.
In this country, childcare is an infrastructure problem. There are simply not enough providers in operation, either in formal centers or in informal home settings, with enough openings to meet current demand. That demand is only likely to increase if Warren’s plan makes childcare far more affordable and better quality than it is today. Significantly increasing the funding available to provide care and compensate providers adequately will certainly entice more people to jump into the business. But there is nothing in the plan that absolutely ensures that enough providers open up shop and create new slots so that all families can take advantage of it.
A universal childcare plan, then, will need to get the federal government directly involved in solving this infrastructure problem. Luckily there are models, both past and present, for the government doing just that. The first was also the only time that the U.S. actually had a universal, affordable childcare program. It came during World War II, when the country was trying to fill factories with the women left behind after men were sent to fight abroad and their young children needed somewhere to go. Lawmakers turned to the Lanham Act, legislation meant to fund infrastructure projects for the war effort, and reinterpreted its “public services” provision to also cover building childcare centers. Federal infrastructure funds were doled out to communities to create and staff new centers. The care was then made available to anyone at a heavily subsidized price of just $9 or $10 in today’s dollars for 12 hours of care. They operated in every state except New Mexico.
That effort was shuttered when the war came to an end, despite the protests of children’s and women’s rights advocates. But we still have a similar program in operation today. The federal government currently runs a network of high-quality, affordable childcare centers for the families of military members, called child development centers. They weren’t always paragons of quality, however. In 1982, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that said military childcare facilities were in dismal shape, failing to meet fire and safety codes and all but falling apart. That eventually led to the Military Child Care Act of 1989, which increased funding and ultimately resulted in the construction of more than 200 centers and required the military to get directly involved in regulating and inspecting them.
Military parents who enroll their children today only pay a share of their income for care, usually about 10 percent; civilian parents spend, on average, a bigger share of their incomes in most states, in some reaching as much as 18 percent. And it’s good care. All centers have to be accredited and comply with four unannounced inspections a year. Providers are required to have a high school diploma or GED and participate in ongoing training, but they are also paid far more than in the civilian world, making on average $15 an hour in 2013, on par with other Department of Defense employees with similar training and experience. All of this requires not just hefty federal funding, but a significant federal role in regulating the centers to make sure they’re up to par.
These centers are also hugely popular—more than half of families with two spouses in the military rely on them. But their popularity has also created a strain on the system. There are currently more than 11,000 children of sailors and airmen on waiting lists for military base childcare slots, which simply goes to show that solving the childcare crisis is a formidable task.
Warren’s plan is more explicitly modeled after legislation crafted in the 1960s, which would have created a national network of universal childcare centers. That legislation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, put federal dollars into local communities to have them create and run childcare centers. It was based on a political calculation that Republicans could back a program that delegated responsibility further down the food chain than the federal government. It paid off—the bill passed both chambers of Congress on a bipartisan basis, and everyone expected President Nixon, who had been a strong supporter of childcare, to sign it. But then Pat Buchanan convinced him to veto it and his veto was blistering: He called the proposal communism and a strike against the traditional family.
As Buchanan proudly told me in 2014, “I think when we ran the sword through [child care] in ’71, it may have killed it for more than half a century.” He may have been right: The issue remained politically off limits for decades. Warren’s proposal is the clearest sign we have that Buchanan’s era is coming to a close. But if her plan doesn’t involve the federal government in solving the infrastructure problem, some families will still be left without any good childcare options at all. We’ll still be left with a broken system.