It’s Long Past Time to Make Childcare Central To the Progressive Agenda

Many millennials plan to have fewer children than they want. Nearly two out of three say it’s because childcare is so prohibitively expensive that they simply can’t afford the families they’d like to have, according to a new poll.

It’s a disturbing, but unsurprising, figure. Childcare costs have skyrocketed by 168 percent in the last 25 years. Full-time daycare costs an average $9,589 a year, according to the Care Index. In urban areas, it can be even worse. Parents in Washington, D.C., pay an astronomical average of $35,782 per year ($2,982! Per! Month!) for childcare. (If you worked full-time at D.C.’s $12.50 minimum wage, you’d only make $26,000.) In at least 15 states, full-time childcare typically costs more than 90% of the average cost of rent.

Say you want to have three kids, and you still want (or need) to work. You could easily be looking at upwards of $100,000 in childcare alone before those three kids start kindergarten. That’s $100,000 that most millennial families just don’t have.

Astronomical childcare costs have a predictable, gendered impact. Nearly 70 percent of parents say the cost of childcare has affected their career decisions. Some parents, mostly mothers, are forced to leave the workforce because they simply can’t afford e $100,000 childcare bills. Women are more likely to stay home, with lasting costs for their earning potential — the average American woman who takes a five-year break from her career in her mid-20s will lose out on $467,000 over her lifetime, in the form of income, wage growth, and retirement benefits. American women are thus forced to choose among bankrupting themselves to pay for childcare, foregoing a massive amount of income over their lifetimes, or giving up on having (more) kids.

This is a crisis with an obvious solution: universal, free, high-quality childcare.

Universal childcare would allow women to remain in the workforce (if they want). It would be better for the economy. And it has obvious benefits for kids, too. Statewide universal pre-K in Oklahoma has had a lasting effect on students’ performance: seventh grade students who had enrolled in Tulsa’s preschool programs as young children had higher GPAs, were more likely to enroll in honors classes, and were significantly less likely to be held back a grade. Children who attend pre-K are also less likely to be pushed into the criminal legal system. Without universal childcare, these benefits accrue only to kids whose parents can afford it (and the lucky few working-class kids selected by lottery for small free pre-K programs).

Critics argue that benefits are only tied to high-quality programs, which, well, duh. But we can scale up universal pre-K without losing quality. New York City’s universal pre-K program put tens of thousands of kids in top-tier pre-K programs in just two years. The City is now rolling out an ambitious “3-K for all” program to match.

Today, supporting free college is (rightly) a prerequisite for the progressive wing of the Democratic party. That’s great news for everyone: access to higher-education should be a right, not a privilege for the wealthy.

But in 33 states and D.C., infant care now costs more than in-state college tuition. It’s striking that the crushing cost of childcare, and its gendered impact, isn’t getting the same attention. I (and others) suspect that’s because caregiving is still too often considered “women’s work,” invisibilized and therefore devalued. It’s time for that to change. Universal pre-K would help fight educational inequality, enable women to work, and alleviate the crushing financial burdens suffocating the millennial middle class.

It’s time for universal childcare to be a central part of the left agenda — just as central as the campaign for free college.

Image credit: Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and the Economic Policy Institute.

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