There’s nothing radical about Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for universal childcare

The right-wing punditry machine has gone into full spin cycle as Democratic presidential candidates throw their hats into the ring, ready to brand any initiative that might ameliorate the lot of working families as radical or, worse in American political parlance, “socialist.”

That has certainly been the case with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for universal child care. But there’s nothing radical or socialist about her plan, which represents a sensible, evidence-based, practical, and much-needed strategy that tackles several critical national crises in one neat package. And it doesn’t even take money away from the GOP’s sacred cows of military spending and border security.

What crises do Warren’s proposal address? Let’s review:

First, and perhaps foremost, the majority of American families currently struggle to get their young children into child care that is decent, let alone of high quality. And for a substantial subgroup in the bottom quintile of the wage distribution, “struggle” is an understatement. For example, a 2015 EPI study showed that a single parent with one child who worked full-time for the minimum wage would not be able to sustain a modest but adequate lifestyle due to the high cost of child care.

Warren’s plan, which would make high-quality care free for families living at up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line and institute a sliding scale above that, with no family paying more than seven percent of their income, would do away entirely with that problem. Families that currently must choose among rent, food, and keeping their toddlers safe can now have all three, and middle-class families can invest in other child development activities and resources. Sounds a lot better than a wall already.

Second, our past and current failure to invest in such a system means we are condemning a large share of the country’s children to futures far below their potentials and aspirations. As would be true if we decided that we just didn’t have the money to invest in paving our roads or repairing our train tracks, we are setting up the next generation of potential doctors, teachers, and active citizens to crash and derail at alarming rates. Brain and child development science are unequivocal both about the critical importance of nurturing, stable, and stimulating care in the earliest years and about the major benefits of high-quality care and education programs.

Rather than follow that science, however, we are paying through the nose for the bad outcomes that result: for the children who are not prepared for kindergarten and fall behind or need remedial services that could have been averted; for the teens who disengage and drop out, and thus never make it to college and good-paying jobs, and who don’t pay taxes and rely on public support; for the young adults who end up in jail rather than in stable homes with healthy children of their own.

As such, rather than costing money long-term, Warren’s proposal carries a relatively modest initial price-tag of $1.7 billion and is likely to start saving money in the near future. Return-on-investment analyses suggest that as fewer children repeat grades and require special education services, public education dollars can be saved (or better spent).

As more of those children graduate from high school and are prepared for college, our workforce will generate more income and workers will pay more taxes. As more of those teens grow into adults who have savings accounts, buy homes, get married, and have children, and fewer of them end up in the criminal justice system, we will start to see big savings across multiple departments/agencies/sectors.

The Warren childcare plan would thus place little further strain on a budget that has been stretched, and would also boost our economy in critical ways. It would make current workers more productive by reducing distractions at work and time lost due to unstable child care arrangements, bring potentially large numbers of women who currently cannot afford to enter it into the workforce, and, of course, make our future workforce much better prepared. It would also put substantial sums into the wallets of child care providers/early childhood teachers, who are now among the lowest-paid employees in the country.

Compared, again, to Donald Trump’s pet border “wall” fantasy that would cost several times this plan, this seems like a much better investment.