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'Day Care For All': How America Views Universal Pre-K

Elliott O'Neil plays on a xylophone at the Wallingford Child Care Center in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Elliott O'Neil plays on a xylophone at the Wallingford Child Care Center in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Some cities and states have tried implementing universal pre-K. But the idea’s struggled to find a nationwide platform. Could that be changing?

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Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology and of women and gender studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Author of “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.” (@caitymcollins)

Joy Pullmann, executive editor of The Federalist. Author of “The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids.” (@JoyPullmann)

Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families. Professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College. (@StephanieCoontz)

From The Reading List

2020 Candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Announces Proposal For Universal Child Care

New York Times: “Opinion: Day Care for All” — “When Bernie Sanders ran for president, he promised to fight for free public college, universal health insurance and a $15 minimum wage. He drew huge crowds, but many Democrats declared his proposals impractical and naïve. ‘We are not Denmark,’ Hillary Clinton tartly observed, even as she tweaked her platform to acknowledge the popularity of these ideas. A few years later, these supposedly pie-in-the-sky proposals are wildly popular among Democrats and have entered the political mainstream as important topics of discussion.

“Free public college, health care for all, a living wage: These are all important causes that will improve life for millions. But there’s another proposal that belongs on the progressive to-do list: universal affordable high-quality child care. In fact, I would put it ahead of free public college: It would help more people and do more to change society for the better. Only about a third of Americans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, after all (although more would surely try if they could afford it). But by the time American women are 40 to 44, 86 percent of them are mothers, and unless they are affluent — or have a retired but still energetic grandma who’s willing to pitch in full time when the kids are little — the child care crisis hits families hard.

“How hard? As any parent can tell you, child care is one of the biggest costs a family faces. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s state-by-state tables, in Alabama it’s $5,637 a year for an infant and an only slightly less daunting $4,871 for a 4-year-old. That’s 69 percent of the average rent and 33.7 percent less than the cost of in-state tuition at a four-year college. At the other end of the alphabet, West Virginia parents are worse off: For them, infant care, at $7,926, is 32 percent more than the cost of college. Pick a state at random and the results are no better. New York: $14,144, or double the cost of a year of college. Illinois: $12,964. California: $11,817. No wonder child care is affordable for only a small minority of families, meaning they pay 10 percent or less of their income for it: 17.8 percent of families in Minnesota, 18.7 percent in Massachusetts, 37.7 percent in Georgia. And that’s for just one child. Most families have more.”

The New Republic: “A New Deal for Day Care” — “Most Americans have long considered child care to be a personal problem rather than a collective one. But times have changed. Today, nearly eight million families pay nannies, day care centers, or some other provider to watch over their children, according to census data. This shift, from parental to professional care, has not been a happy one economically: Annual costs can easily reach tens of thousands of dollars, outpacing what families typically spend on food and, in many states, housing or even public college tuition. In Massachusetts, for example, where child care costs are some of the highest in the country, a parent with an infant spends an average of $20,125 each year on day care; freshman-year tuition at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, runs only $14,596. The expense doesn’t necessarily result in good care: Fewer than 10 percent of day care centers, according to a 2006 survey, have well-trained and well-educated providers, who read books aloud to children, respond to them, ask questions, and encourage their development.

“That’s for the parents who can even get professional child care. Large stretches of the United States are considered ‘child care deserts,’ where day care centers either don’t exist at all or are in such demand that there are more than three times as many kids as available spots. Take Minnesota, a state with one of the most intense child care shortages in the country; in the Twin Cities, more than a million people live in one of these deserts—roughly two-thirds of the population. It’s even worse in the state’s rural areas: The numbers reach as high as 84 percent. Across Minnesota, there are more than four children for every available day care center slot.

“Fifty years ago, this situation would have essentially been unthinkable: In 1970, about half of all American mothers stayed home to care for their children. But today, the vast majority of parents, men and women, want to work outside the home; yet too often they can’t—because they can’t afford care for their children. In 2016, nearly two million parents with kids age five and younger had to quit, turn down a job, or significantly change their work because of child care problems. Women are often the hardest hit. Since the 1980s, as child care costs have climbed 70 percent, working mothers’ labor force participation rate has declined 13 percent.”

Elle: “Having a child will bankrupt you” — “For a while Angelica Gonzalez was able to make everything work. Shortly after she graduated college, she landed a dream job—working as a family liaison in a school district—and she qualified for child care subsidies that meant she had to pay only $15 a month for her young daughter. Then one day she received an unexpected child support payment of about $200, which increased her income so sharply that her subsidy was rescinded. Nearly overnight, her child care payment shot up to $800. She took on a second job, bringing her kids with her in the evenings, but it became too much. ‘This whole life I had built was just falling apart,’ she says.

“Gonzalez left both jobs in search of higher pay, but nothing better materialized. She turned to neighbors to watch her children, but that proved to be dangerous: one person so neglected them that her daughter almost got run over by a car.

“It was in the middle of this difficult period that she got involved with a man who promised to help her but who turned out to be abusive. ‘My abuser was like, “Oh you work so hard, and you’re struggling, and I just want to help,”‘ she says. ‘[I was] feeling so vulnerable and so exhausted and so overworked.’ Eventually, she was offered what seemed like a way out—a salaried sales position in marketing that would have allowed her to support herself.

“But every day care center she contacted to care for her two-year-old son, the youngest of her two children at the time, was completely full. ‘I don’t have family or friends or people to kind of fill that gap,’ she says. So she stayed with her boyfriend, and the more he helped, the harder it became to escape: ‘When I would try to leave him, I’d be homeless.’ ”

Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on

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