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An Interview With Elizabeth Warren

Unaffordable child care is crushing too many families right now. Child care is a core part of our infrastructure. We can fix this.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaking from a school in Massachusetts to the Democratic National Convention in August,

Sen. Elizabeth Warren could have made her Democratic National Convention speech about anything. She spoke from a school in Massachusetts, talking about child care. We asked her about the importance of ensuring affordable child care for everyone and better wages for care providers.

The American Prospect: Sen. Warren, your proposed Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act seems like a slam dunk. With so many families unable to afford reliable care and so many care workers underpaid, this is a rendezvous waiting to happen. Yet it has been impossible to achieve politically, even as we have expanded other areas of social provision such as health care. Why is this one so hard?

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Sen. Warren: Before the coronavirus outbreak, there was already a child care crisis in America, but I think a lot of people thought it wasn’t their problem. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing the major holes in our economy and our society, including the giant boulder of unaffordable child care crushing too many families right now. Tens of millions of Americans are losing their jobs or worried they will. Schools are shuttered and kids are at home trying to keep on learning. And child care providers are closing left and right, with many saying they may never be able to reopen. So the challenge of finding affordable child care has gone from hard to darn near impossible. So families get it.

And more and more people without children are realizing that child care is a core part of our infrastructure. We build infrastructure like roads, bridges, and communications systems so that people can work. That infrastructure helps us all because it keeps our economy going, and child care is infrastructure for families. Without reliable, safe, and affordable child care, parents simply will not be able to get back to work. And that’s like dropping a giant anchor behind our struggling economy.

That’s why I am working with my colleagues in Congress to save our child care system from collapsing with a $50 billion child care bailout. But we need to build this broken system back better than before. We can’t just go back. We need to make a long-term investment in child care and early learning for all our kids. We can do this if everyone gets in this fight and calls on their member of Congress to act.

Do you think the pandemic and the progressive hopes for the Biden administration to deliver policies that make a palpable difference in people’s lives provide an opening for real progress that has been denied up until now?

I believe this is a pivot point in modern American history. And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have committed to big solutions to shrink our economic and racial gaps, like canceling billions in student loan debt, investing in universal, high-quality child care and pre-K, creating new union jobs in clean energy, increasing Social Security and disability benefits, making the wealthy pay their fair share, repairing racial inequities, and fighting corruption in Washington.

I believe government can be a powerful force for good when it actually works for people. We can save lives, support families, and also make big, structural changes to make our economy and our country work for every person, not just the wealthy and well-connected.

What about the challenge of existing child care and pre-K workers in family day care or other facilities that are not up to par? On the one hand, we need to professionalize and upgrade quality. On the other hand, we don’t want to displace the large force of existing workers.

The way I see it, this comes down to how we pay and value child care workers—who are often women and often women of color. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have committed to something I’ve also fought for: treat child care workers and educators with the respect and dignity they deserve by paying them what they deserve.

And they sure deserve a raise. Under the universal child care bill that I introduced and under Joe Biden’s plan, child care workers’ wages and benefits would be similar to those of local public elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience, and child care workers would have the training and development they deserve with the ability to join a union. And we need to invest in the child care supply, which has collapsed during this pandemic, and build more safe child care facilities. We can’t leave family and home-based child care providers out of this. They may be small, but a lot of them are anchors of their communities. They deserve support and fair pay, too.

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.