While many of the candidates that competed for the US Democratic presidential nomination came out in favor of uncommonly progressive family-friendly policies, like free childcare and pre-K for all infants and toddlers, the latest frontrunner to emerge has not.
From mandated paid family leave to childcare, the plans that candidates have proposed align with what research shows parents and their kids need to thrive—lots of time with one another, government support for working parents, and a quality environment for learning and play in the years before formal schooling begins.
A study published this week by the Harvard Review of Psychiatry found that mothers who got paid time off after having a baby were physically and mentally healthier and more likely to breastfeed their babies. And their children, who had time to bond with their mothers, had better developmental and emotional outcomes and were less likely to die in infancy. Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman found that every dollar invested in a very young child delivers a 13% yearly rate of return. And quality preschool programs can help reduce the gap between rich and poor kids over generations.
And yet, of the two remaining frontrunners for the Democratic nomination, only one—Vermont senator Bernie Sanders—has a detailed plan for pre-K and childcare. Advocates point out that former vice president Joe Biden does not, putting him out of step in an election where these issues have taken center stage.
“I would like to see more meat on those bones,” says Elliot Haspel, a researcher in education policy at the Robins Foundation, referring to Biden’s plans for families. Biden has expressed support for free and universal pre-K, meaning schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds, but hasn’t explained how he would implement it. Haspel points out the emphasis on pre-K was common in the Obama administration, which “may be somewhat reflected in the ways [Biden] approaches it and talks about it.”
For some kids, pre-K is too late. Research shows that, when it comes to intervening in a vulnerable child’s life, earlier is better. But during children’s first years, many parents struggle to find affordable and quality childcare. Yet Biden hasn’t provided a plan to tackle America’s childcare crisis.
On paid family leave, Biden has advocated for 12 weeks, and Sanders for 6 months. But Vicki Shabo, senior fellow on paid leave policy and strategy at New America, says Sanders hasn’t explained how the US could go from zero weeks of paid family leave to roughly 26 weeks. “Duration isn’t everything,” Shabo says. “I’m really interested in how these candidates deal with family definition, how they deal with wage replacement, and how they deal with job protection.”
Here is how the two leading Democratic candidates stack up on issues affecting children and families:
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.