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A Democratic Case For Universal Child Care


At a rally yesterday, presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren laid out her plan for universal child care, a plan aimed at increasing access for families across income levels.


ELIZABETH WARREN: So under this proposal, millions of families could send their kids for free, and the cost would be capped at 7 percent of income for all other families.

MARTIN: Senator Warren hopes the plan will address an ongoing-but-somehow-little-discussed complaint of millions of American families - the lack of affordable high-quality child care. One year of child care in Massachusetts, for example, Senator Warren's home state, is about $17,000. But that's not just a Massachusetts problem. According to a New York Times poll, child care costs are the No. 1 reason fewer people are having children. Katha Pollitt wrote about this in The New York Times. She says child care is a pressing issue and should top the Democratic agenda. She's with us now from New York. Katha Pollitt, thanks so much for joining us.

KATHA POLLITT: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So in Senator Warren's plan, the federal government would pour a lot of money into quality child care. Is this the right move?

POLLITT: I think it is. You know, so many other countries have very big and excellent child care systems like, for example, France. And I think we should be able to do that here.

MARTIN: If the system is so flawed today though, why do you think it hasn't gotten more attention from policymakers, you know, across the spectrum? I mean, Hillary Clinton, for example, I mean, the first woman to win the major party nomination for president, it wasn't a priority. I mean, she did address it at some point, but it wasn't something that people associate with Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Why do you think it is that this issue has not gotten more attention?

POLLITT: There are several reasons why it hasn't taken off more. One is child care is a very important issue for a specific time in your life. You don't realize that this is going to be a problem until you have a baby. And then four years later, or if you have more than one child, maybe six years later or seven years later, it's over. And it's sort of like childbirth. It's very important while it's happening, and then it's finished, and you don't need to think about it again.

So I think partly it's that parents, while they're in the thick of it, they're too tired and too preoccupied to be political activists. I think another reason, though, is in America, we have a lot of hostility towards social programs. We don't want to spend a lot of money on it. Look. They're always trying to cut Social Security. They're always trying to cut Medicaid. Those are the things that benefit very a powerful constituency - older people. So I think that our hereditary bias against large social programs really serves parents very poorly.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about why you think this is a significant issue beyond the - how can I put this? - the sort of personal distress of of individuals who find it very stressful for this particular period in their lives. I mean, why do you think that there's an issue that, in your view, should command everybody's attention?

POLLITT: Well, not having child care means that women can't go to work who want to go to work and whose families need that income. And that means a lot of women end up with kind of jerry-built arrangements and they fall apart. And then those women can be fired, which is completely legal. I mean, workers have very little protection in this country. Lack of stable, affordable child care is one of the reasons that women's work force participation has stalled even though women's education has increased.

So you've got a lot of women who are unhappily at home, which is something we don't hear that much about. And what that all means is that when women do go back to work, they don't get back to where they were. They have lost Social Security. They've lost a lot of the good things that come when you are working and earning a steady income.

MARTIN: One question I have for you, though, is do these proposals in some ways fight each other? I mean, on the one hand, progressives are supporting a much higher minimum wage than is required in many states, a $15 minimum wage. How then does that comport with the desire to have more accessible child care? I mean, child care workers are notoriously underpaid as it is. How do progressives reconcile what could be actually kind of opposing ideas?

POLLITT: Well, I don't think they are opposing ideas. Obviously, quality child care will be expensive, but this is a very rich country. So I think, you know, there's always money for things that you really want. And if this is something we really want, we will figure out how to pay for it.

MARTIN: But on the other hand, there are people who say, look, if you can't, you know, then don't have kids. I mean, that is an argument that people would make. They say, look, you know what? If you can't afford to take care of the kids, then you shouldn't have kids.

POLLITT: Well, I think there's a lot that's wrong with that. And one is that having children is something that is pretty basic to most people's sense of what life is all about. And I don't think you can just say, oh, if you don't make $50,000 a year or $70,000 a year or whatever, you can't have a child. I mean, what are we saying, that the working class, in addition to every other problem they have, should be this class of childless single people? I mean, that doesn't make any sense at all. I mean, children are our future.

MARTIN: That's Katha Pollitt. She's a columnist for The Nation, and she was kind of to join us from New York. Katha Pollitt, thank you so much for talking to us.

POLLITT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.