Socialists Take Up Critical Fight for Universal Child Care in the United States

At the nexus of multiple injustices in the United States lies a particular cruelty visited upon working parents and their very young children: the crisis of child care. This point of failure involves poverty, neoliberal deprivation, patriarchal family structures, racial inequality and more, sited at the intersection of several of capitalism’s most glaring inequities. For many, options for child care are lacking, and the patchwork private system that does exist is deplorably expensive and of disturbingly low quality. These deficiencies introduce multiplying financial, logistical and emotional stressors into the lives of working-class parents, particularly women and people of color, along with grave outcomes for child development — and the social world writ large.

The cause is the state’s effective abdication of this critical societal function to private enterprise. As is so often the case, the venerated free market has utterly failed to adequately provide for public needs, and the hindering of public support has proven inimical to human thriving. The COVID-19 pandemic engraved those existing fissures more deeply — yet the execrable conditions in the child care sector long predate the pandemic. They are the product of a neoliberal capitalism that has dispensed with social welfare in service of profit and free-market idolatry. Yet there are advocates and committed organizers who have a vision of a more humane and just world — and who, despite towering obstacles, have set out on their tireless work of bringing it to fruition.

A Costly Necessity

Child care is an ineluctable social need, and has become only more so because of systematic inequality and impoverishment; many adults have had no choice but to take on additional jobs. Among mothers of young children in the United States, nearly two-thirds participate in the workforce. Correspondingly, 8.4 million children under the age of 5 need child care — while only 5.9 million slots exist.

Research has confirmed the benefits of quality care in those deeply formative years. Interventions in early childhood have an outsize effect on well-being: improvements in cognitive and language skills, socialization, and emotional functioning dovetail with the relief of strain that child care offers for workers, particularly working women. Yet the inverse is also true: Nonexistent, inattentive — or worse, abusive — child care resonates throughout lives, and across generational time spans. It is critical that children be attended to with empathy and provided learning enrichment, entering them into a virtuous cycle that catalyzes later thriving.

Yet there is nothing virtuous about the status quo of child care in the U.S. The stresses it places upon new working-class parents are multifarious and punishing. Priming the difficult circumstances, the Family Medical Leave Act offers only limited paid time off for pregnancy and early-life care, and even that is subject to stringent constraints. (The U.S. stands utterly alone among developed nations — in fact, among nearly all other nations — in failing to guarantee paid time off for parental leave.) When whatever time off they are allotted has ended, new parents must then arrange care for their pre-K children. In doing so, they are forced to navigate a poorly regulated, competitive and flagrantly expensive network of private daycare options.

The average cost of child care represents 17.1 percent of the national median household income — and double that for low-income families, at an untenable 35 percent of earnings. This expense, which can effectively amount to a second rent, is simply out of reach for innumerable families. In another stark illustration of the outlay: “In most states, putting a baby in a licensed child-care facility costs more than in-state college tuition,” reports Bloomberg. Federal funding to alleviate these extortionate costs is marginal: Of the already-limited number of children who were even eligible for assistance in 2015, only 15 percent received any subsidy. (Comparably limited state funding means that preschool costs are often little different.) Other wealthy capitalist countries devote an average of $14,000 of annual public spending per child. (Norway spends nearly $30,000; Hungary, a little over $7,000.) The U.S. spends, startlingly, a mere $500. The depth of U.S. coffers seems matched only by the extent of its parsimony when it comes to working people.

Unaffordable, Unavailable or Unsanctioned

The strain on parents is redoubled by the difficulty of locating any care at all, affordable or not: A vastly inadequate supply has created “child care deserts.” A 2016 survey of states (comprising 40 percent of the population) from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that existing supply could serve only a quarter of toddlers and infants. For the latter, it’s worse, as CAP points out: “Licensed child care is more than three times as scarce for children ages 0 to 2 than it is for those ages 3 to 5.”

Oftentimes, options simply do not exist. But parents who lack for alternatives — many of them women of color — have then faced stigma, censure and even incarceration for leaving children while at work or in job interviews. The jeers of the public that such stories have drawn arise from a kneejerk impulse to condemn the individual, in ignorance of the structural factors and outright impossible situations to which low-income parents have been condemned by these realities.

Yet the catastrophic failures of child care extend further still. In an article for The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn documents the staggering abuses and tragedies that the laissez-faire approach has produced. The limited programs that are both available and affordable are often unlicensed and unregulated. Daycares of “abysmally” low quality predominate. “A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ — only 10 percent provided high-quality care,” writes Cohn. Yet “just thirty-nine states in the wealthiest country in the world even have a program that rates the quality of day-care centers.”

This dearth of oversight facilitates negligence, which can lead, in the grimmest cases, to the single worst imaginable occurrence for any parent. Staffing issues, facilities in poor condition, poorly trained workers, inattention to health and safety — all of these factors result in ghastly statistics. “The death rate of children enrolled in home-based day care — which is far more likely to be unlicensed than a center-based program — is twelve times that of center-based care,” Cohn writes. The horror of harm to even a single child notwithstanding, poor oversight and a reliance on self-reporting means that the true numbers, of injuries and even deaths, are unclear.

Caregiver Exploitation

Daycare staff, for their part, contend with low salaries, punishing hours and dismal job conditions. “To the extent that child care is affordable for parents at all, this is only because the child care workforce effectively subsidizes child care costs with low worker wages,” CAP notes.

This industry has some of the lowest wages in the country, in fact. Staffed almost exclusively by women, daycares in 2020 offered a median pay of $12.24 an hour. Median annual incomes hover in the $20,000 range; the averages in high cost-of-living states don’t exceed $40,000. A worker with less than a year on the job can average as low as $9.50 an hour — but even 20 or more years of experience might net them only $11.97. These are poverty-level numbers, “even though 87% of [childcare staff] have some form of higher education,” reports Bloomberg.

Furthermore, a disproportionate 40 percent of staff are women of color, and workers are stratified by a racial wage gap: Black caregivers earn an average $0.77 less per hour. Ratios of children (under the age of 5) to caregivers can be drastic. In some states, older age group ratios reach as high as 25:1. It’s unsurprising, then, that workers have fled the profession — though the resulting staffing crisis has only amplified all the aforementioned stresses, miring the sector in its present unconscionable state.

The pandemic, as it tends to do, has exacerbated all of these failures. Child care was immensely fragile even before COVID-19, but its ruptures have deepened the availability and staffing crises, with many daycares shuttering and workers abandoning the profession. A 2020 survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that the majority of daycares had incurred substantial new operational costs. An estimated 86 percent are serving fewer children than they did before the pandemic — a reflection of closures, reduced resources, and parental job losses. Some federal grants and subsidies have been disbursed to prop up the industry, but these are, on balance, insufficient. (During the pandemic’s first year, child care workers were also denied vaccine priority despite their putative “essential” status.)

Of working parents, two out of three were forced to revise their child care arrangements because of the pandemic. These conditions have been mitigated to some extent as the world adapts to COVID, but the system’s fragility in a crisis is telling. While the convergence of COVID and child care was “a global fiasco,” subsidies and social supports of many kinds in Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and across Europe meant that those countries weathered it far better. Meanwhile, job loss among women was worse in the neoliberal strongholds of the U.S. and U.K. Without drastic reform, some of the pandemic-inflicted damage to U.S. child care could be permanent. Again, the lack of a resilient publicly funded system — and a blanket aversion to redistributive policy — is to blame.

First Steps Toward Universality

Many envision how these harsh conditions might be different — how we might design policy that assigns human life and thriving intrinsic value, especially the well-being of children. Historical antecedents in the U.S. do exist; as Meagan Day writes in Jacobin, the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 would have created universal daycare programs, development centers and preschools as a means of addressing poverty, as well as neglect and abuse. But that better future was foreclosed when the bill was vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon, pleasing his fundamentalist constituents.

Organizers in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have set their sights on rekindling the concept. In fact, there’s already a contemporary success to point to: Measure 26-214 in Oregon’s Multnomah County, developed by Portland DSA and a local coalition and passed in 2020, will institute a fully universal preschool program, funded by a tax on high incomes. The victory hinted at the popularity of the idea, and provided a model that organizers are eager to replicate — and significantly expand.

“We’re looking to make child care — inclusive of infant care, preschool and before and after-school programs — a public good,” said organizer Farzana W., the co-chair of the DSA-LA Childcare for All campaign and a onetime child care worker herself, who requested that only the first initial of her last name be printed. DSA Los Angeles recently passed a resolution to make pursuit of universal child care a chapter priority. The first Childcare for All canvassing campaigns are just getting underway in the city.

Organizers in Columbus, Ohio’s DSA chapter have also officially began developing their own campaign to mitigate the woeful realities of child care in their city. Rita Hallaveld is a campaign steward in Columbus DSA’s Child Care Priority Campaign. “In Franklin County,” she said, “there are not enough child care center slots to cover all infants and toddlers. In Columbus, a single mother of two making $15 an hour spends over half her income on child care, without enough to cover rent, food, etc.” Hallaveld said that the Columbus DSA organizers “hope to really engage residents and highlight all the ways that child care is a common good to help get everyone on board.”

In Los Angeles, organizers’ efforts have already earned positive responses. While their goals are sweeping, they are popular ones, “easily understood and widely felt,” Farzana W. told Truthout. “So far, the response from the public has been quite supportive. The need for reliable, quality child care is something that’s intuitively understood by many, partly due to its immediate relevance to people’s lives.” She echoed deep concerns about availability, cost, quality and staff wages.

The two campaigns are only just taking their first steps. Hallaveld described the initial phase of intensive policy planning in the Columbus DSA working group, which is analyzing funding sources and tax structures. Such ambitious measures will require strong alliances, and Columbus organizers are hoping to build “a diverse grassroots coalition made up of parents, child care educators, and residents in our area,” Hallaveld commented. “We want the voices that are most impacted to be a part of this process from the beginning. Child care providers are disproportionately women of color, so we want to center their voices throughout the process … Eventually we hope to put the measure on the ballot, so we’ll be doing a lot of work to engage voters.”

In the near term, Farzana W. also pointed to coalition building, along with continued canvassing and outreach, community surveys, research and policy planning, activating parent and care staff organizers and agitating around the demands, all while assessing and refining their methods.

While both campaigns remain nascent at this stage, if the success of the pre-K ballot measure in Portland indicates anything, it’s that deeply committed advocates can realize long-shot ambitions. Organizers see those ambitions as part of a holistic vision of a socialism that meets people’s real needs: “We want to change the reputation of the left in Los Angeles,” said Farzana W., “from one that’s insulated, online and foreign to one that’s approachable, reliable, homegrown and advancing demands that people care deeply about.”

A publicly funded universal system would mean an early chance for intervention in improving well-being, resonant with multiple social needs. It is logical for socialists to take up efforts to confront this moral crisis: a crisis of injustice and inequality that punishes the most vulnerable. As Farzana W. reiterates, “We want to remove the profit motive from the child care industry [and] reestablish the public good as the core of left politics.”