The case for treating childcare like essential economic infrastructure

Critical to the nation’s future.
Critical to the nation’s future.
Image: Reuters/Lindsey Wasson
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Elizabeth Warren isn’t the first to say that America’s childcare system is broken. But in a speech alongside the Democratic National Convention yesterday she chose a striking comparison.

“We build infrastructure like roads and bridges and communications systems so that people can work. That infrastructure helps us all because it keeps our economy going,” Warren said. “It’s time to recognize that childcare is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation. It’s infrastructure for families.” ‘

The sentiment is likely to strike a particular chord right now, when so many parents are struggling with work commitments while at the same time providing the childcare that they would normally pay for, or which would be covered by schools. In many US states, schools are still closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with no clarity on when they will reopen. Many day care centers are closed, and of those that are open, some require even pre-school kids to wear masks.

The US has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, according to a World Economic Forum analysis, with a couple who have two young children and earn an average wage having to spent over 33% of their income on childcare. (Only New Zealand, at over 37% and the UK at almost 36% are worse.) The US is also the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t mandate any form of maternity or parental leave. Long working hours, and short holidays, exacerbate the pressures on childcare.

US childcare is also notoriously patchy. High earners likely drive the high and increasing cost of childcare, because they seek out and are willing to pay for higher quality options. But poorer families, while they pay less, are also less well-served. High childcare costs, it has been suggested, are a factor in Americans having fewer children or even foregoing them completely.

The Massachusetts senator spoke about the day her aunt, hearing that Warren was about to quit her early and beloved teaching job because she couldn’t make it work with childcare, offered to come and help, then stayed for 16 years. “I get to be here tonight because of my Aunt Bee,” Warren said. “And yet here we are, two generations of working parents later, and if you have a baby and you don’t have an Aunt Bee, you’re on your own.”