We Need Universal Childcare And We Need It Now

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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Like almost every mother I know, I was completely unprepared for how damn expensive childcare would be. Before my first son was born, I worked part-time at a university. After his birth, I took a semester off, and was prepared to go back eventually. But when I began to compare the cost of childcare with my projected paychecks, I knew that most definitely would not be an option.

In New York, where I live, the cost of childcare averages $14, 400 a year, according to The New York Times (and wasn’t very different 12 years ago, when I first became a mom). I remember sitting on the couch with my newborn son and a calculator, doing the math: If I factored in my commuting costs, and the time I would spend grading paper and preparing for class, I would have broken even in terms of take-home pay. I might have even lost pay.

And so I never considered paying for childcare, and became a financially-strapped SAHM. It was not exactly what I planned, but I made it work, as do so many mothers (and fathers) in America, whether they end up going back to work or not. We do it like the kick-ass parents we are.

But that doesn’t mean it’s OK or that we should just accept that this is how things are – that hardworking parents have either have to go back to work and struggle to pay their daycare bill, or not go back to work and struggle to pay their bills at all.

Yet this is where so many of us parents find ourselves, because we live in a country that doesn’t seem to give a shit about working parents – especially moms, who inevitably become the ones who make the choice to stay home with their kids in lieu of viable childcare options. And if you are a single mom? With single moms putting up over 50% of their paychecks toward childcare, it’s no wonder so many struggle hard to make ends meet.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine for a second what it would be like if childcare were truly affordable. If, for example, the government subsidized childcare for all (not just low-income families, but all families). Imagine, too, that in doing so, childcare workers – who are traditionally woefully underpaid – were paid a good living wage, thus ensuring that childcare options were of the highest quality. Imagine that rather than daycare costs zapping 25-50% of your income (as it does in the U.S.), that it occupied something more like 5-10% of your income.

Sounds like a pipe dream, no? Well, it’s not a dream, but a reality for families who live in places like Denmark, which guarantees subsidized childcare options for all of its citizens. Parents in Korea, Austria, Greece and Hungary have similar options, too, with families spending 4% or less of their salaries on childcare for their kids.

The money for these programs comes out of their taxes, in much the same ways that our taxes pay for public schools, libraries, and our public safety departments. In a recent Op-Ed for The New York Times, Katha Pollitt argues that in much the same way that many of us have begun arguing for paid parental leave and health insurance for all, we need to add universal childcare – as well as guaranteed living wages for childcare providers – to the list.

“Affordable high-quality child care is an idea that should appeal to everyone,” writes Pollitt. “It’s good for workers and employers, for communities and families and children. It would create lots of jobs. It would allow lots of people to go to work. It would raise incomes and relieve a lot of stress and unhappiness and give children a good start in life.”


As 2020 political candidates begin sharing their platforms and visions for a better America, I sure hope that universal childcare will tops their list of priorities. I was very happy to see that Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren recently unveiled a universal childcare plan and Kirsten Gillibrand has eluded to plans like this as well.

MORE, PLEASE. I’d like to see all the political candidates — including the men — put this issue at the top of their lists. Sadly, as Pollitt points out, this issue has traditionally not been given the spotlight in the way that it really should – perhaps because so many people don’t think it’s an issue that impacts them directly.

But with the majority of us becoming parents eventually (86% of women become parents by the end of their childbearing years, for example), it absolutely affects us all. And the issue is only getting worse, as the cost of living increases without wages rising to match. So many parents are facing poverty and economic instability, which has huge impact on young children. The health and wellbeing of everyone in our country should be a priority, no ifs, ands or buts.

The time is now to address this issue. We need affordable, high-quality, accessible childcare options for all families and all children. Our childcare workers need to be paid well so that they can offer the best care to our kids. And this all needs to happen ASAFP. Every awesome parent out there and each and every precious child deserves nothing less.

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