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The Need for Universal Daycare

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Finally, a half-century since universal daycare was vetoed by Richard Nixon at the behest of Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan, progressives are at least talking about the issue again. But on issues of daycare, the pandemic has made everything much worse, driving women from the workforce entirely. Sarah Jones has a good piece on how anti-family conservatives have taken advantage of the pandemic to push back against any change of a federal childcare program.

Blame some backward momentum on the pandemic. Nearly 3 million women left the workforce in 2020, and only 1.5 million had returned by late April of this year. Schools closed, which forced children home and increased burdens on women again to look after them. While nearly half of fathers told the New York Times that they did most of the homeschooling, only 3 percent of mothers agreed with their version of events. Eighty percent said they — not fathers — did most of the homeschooling, and 70 percent said they did most of the housework, too. This is a crisis, most agree — but not all. If the pandemic did create a nation of housewives, it has blessed the religious right. Somewhere beyond the grave, Phyllis Schlafly must be pleased.

Her modern successors have to hide their obvious pleasure. Gone are the days when a conservative could speak openly of a woman’s gentle nature, or her submissive qualities, or her intrinsic desire to stay in the home. The religious right has never been totally at ease with women’s march through the institutions, and the pandemic grants them a precious opportunity that President Biden is trying to spoil. His American Families Plan would raise taxes on the rich to entirely cover child-care costs for low-income workers and ensure other workers would only have to spend a set portion of their income on child care. Families with 3- and 4-year-old children could take advantage of universal preschool, an option that now exists only in some municipalities, like New York. The policies aren’t quite universal child care, but Biden’s policies would still be consequential. Child care would become less of a luxury service and more of a right. That’s good for women and children too, the Biden administration believes, and so do many experts.

Yet the plan has its detractors,. At The Week, commentator Bonnie Kristian argued that Biden’s plan to ease the parental path to work is “not what most lower-income and working-class Americans want.” Taking matters a step further in a Wall Street Journal editorial, Hillbilly Elegy author and probable Senate candidate J.D. Vance elaborated on tweets that called the concept of universal child care “a massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class.” In the piece, which he co-wrote with Jenet Erickson, a policy analyst at the conservative Institute for Family Studies, Vance called the proposal “a bad deal for American children” and cited research that attributed negative social outcomes to early years spent in subsidized Quebec day-care programs. High-quality day care might be good for kids from troubled homes, they concede, but children from “average, healthy homes” might be harmed. “Our democracy might be comfortable with the trade-offs here … But we ought to be honest and acknowledge that these trade-offs exist,” they wrote.

Honesty is indeed a virtue, so here is the truth. According to a new Morning Consult poll, the American Families Plan is popular with voters, and most say they support Biden’s family-care provisions. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be a populist groundswell against the notion of subsidized day care. And if working women do inflict unspeakable damage on their children, feminists would have to search their souls. My own future would reorient around new questions. No longer would I wonder at the cost of day care. I’d ask myself if I’m ready to abandon my career to have my children. (The blunt answer is that I’m not and never would be.) Sure, my partner could stay home instead — but that’s not really what Vance, his co-editorialist, or anyone else who’s railing against Biden’s child-care proposal really wants. The world hasn’t changed so drastically since Hochschild originally published her groundbreaking work. Women made fragile progress. Without universal day care, they’re most likely the parent who is forced to stay home.

Like basically everything else Biden has proposed, Americans actually do want better childcare, but they often don’t think the government will step up for them. Meanwhile, Comrade Vance seeks to use his hard Appalachian populism developed in the Cincinnati suburbs to force women to stay at home and take care of their children no matter how much better off the women, the children, the economy, and the nation would be with a good federal childcare that freed women, socialized children, and created a more productive nation. But Baby Jesus evidently would oppose this. Pat Buchanan’s desiccated semi-living body no doubt laughs satanically.

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